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The Iain Sinclair Interview

By sizemore Last edited 143 months ago
The Iain Sinclair Interview

We've mentioned a couple of times now that Iain Sinclair will be appearing at Patti Smith's Meltdown, but we didn't reveal that Londonist was invited to have a chat with him one sunny afternoon a week or so ago. What followed was a conversation that made for a great interview which it is now our pleasure to share with you. It's a LONG one, but it covers so much of interest that we were hard pressed to cut it down. Grab a coffee and see what Iain has to say about the upcoming tribute to William Burroughs, the success of London Orbital, his new books, the current state of British publishing and politics and of course whether Belle de Jour is likely to be unmasked as Gordon Brown... we kid you not. Enjoy!

How did you get involved in the William Burroughs event at Meltdown?

It came out of left field. A letter arrived one day saying that Patti Smith was doing this thing and the themes were William Burroughs, Blake, Rimbaud... I wrote back and said I'm very keen on William Blake and I've got some interesting thoughts on Rimbaud in London and Burroughs… I'm a long time enthusiast. By the time we'd actually got back in touch again Blake and Rimbaud had been dropped and I was asked to do something on Burroughs so yes I'm delighted to be involved.

I have no idea what the format of the evening is at this point, but my own connection and obsession with Burroughs began right back at the beginning when I first started to write. I was a student in Dublin and I wrote off to him and he sent me this incredible piece that was in three columns and it could be read across or down. When you're 18 this is an amazing thing. I think he was the only person who responded from fifteen or so luminaries so he was in my good books from way back.

I corresponded with him in the 60's for a time about a film we were going to do. It was sort of on the point of being done when he took up Scientology big time and disappeared into East Grinstead. I didn't see him again for years and years until I went across to America doing a programme on the Beats for the BBC and he was really the highlight - going to visit him in Lawrence, Kansas. I've got a little piece based loosely on this visit. I don't know if I'll be able to do that on the night but that's what I want to do.

So there are no rehearsals yet?

I've no idea at all. That's as far as it's gone. 'Yes I'd like to do it' then silence and suddenly a thing comes asking will you do it on the evening of the 16th and something's happening on the first half and the second half will fall to you and Alan Moore. So there you go.

We saw the Coen Brothers/Charlie Kaufman production at the Royal Festival Hall a few weeks ago and that was basically spoken word pieces. It's a great venue for this kind of thing.

We did one a couple of years back loosely based on Blake and it had a real mixture of stuff. Billy Bragg and people were singing, Alan Moore did a piece and I was doing a spoken word thing with projections and it seemed like a very good venue and a good audience. What was very unlikely was doing a thing at the Barbican for London Orbital, the M25 book, and I think they were expecting to get two or three-hundred people in and it sold out two-thousand people. There was a strong music element with Bill Drummond although he did prose, but Jimmy Cauty was playing and Scanner was doing stuff, but essentially it was spoken word.

So there is an interest definitely and more and more it's going to have to happen because the machinery for publication is so sluggish. Unless books work instantly it doesn't happen so you've got to go outside that system and start using public platforms and start doing performance events.

Were you surprised at the success of London Orbital?

I was very surprised. It seemed like an obtuse project to me, not very far removed from things that had been totally marginal. I think it's because the basic idea was simple. Just this notion of a guy walking around the edge of London . It was able to focus in a way that some of my other books that are more layered and complex didn't do.

It seemed to stay in hardback for a very long time although that was a beautiful edition.

Well I fell out to some extent with the original hardback publisher. It started quite slowly in hardback because it was quite an expensive book, too much really. Then it started to sell well and the within only two months or something I did an event with JG Ballard at the ICA and it had gone. I was doing this thing with a large audience, a big queue of people waiting to get their books so I could sign them and there weren't any. And I thought this was really depressing and they said, 'No, we don't reprint we just do the one run'.

This was Granta?

Yes. So in a sense getting the paperback into Penguin meant it was much more readily available and it's sold really well. It's the one book of mine that's got around the most. I've noticed now that I'm completely defined as a travel writer. This new book of mine that's just come out in paperback called Dining on Stones is presented as a travel book and is being promoted along side London Orbital, but really it's not that at all. There are elements of that in it, but it's interesting that that seems to be the way I've been defined.

It's funny because when I did Lights out for the Territory, the first non fiction book of that type, Granta were very keen to define it as fiction because they thought if it goes in as 'Travel' it gets hidden at the back of the shop but now it's the other way round with books that are fiction defined as travel.

Well Travel Writing is so popular at the moment.

Whereas I think Literary fiction is very tough to shift. I think as far as I'm concerned I'll have to concentrate on this ambiguous material that can be defined as that. Although I want to do fiction I can see it becoming a difficult thing to get promoted in the future.

Your new book, Journey out of London, features another walk?

Yes, the book comes out in September but it's now called Edge of the Orison. It kind of continues or completes the trilogy of Lights Out and London Orbital because the actual journey was exactly the same distance as the journey around the M25, but out into the country. It traces something that I've passed through in London Orbital which is Epping Forest and the asylum were the poet John Clare was kept; he did this phenomenal three and a half day march back to his village north of Peterborough and I always wanted to repeat that journey.

So the book starts with a reprisal of his journey, walking at exactly the same dates in July when it's sweltering hot and it was weirder than the M25 because I found that the whole of middle England was just deserted. There's nothing there once you're off the motorway. In the villages the pubs are shut, there were no obvious farmers, abandoned airfields, huge industrial fields of corn and a very very weird landscape. Whereas walking around the edge of London there were always people you'd bump into and stories to hear. This was like emptiness. Emptiness all the way.

It's a version of what's coming up which is John Prescott's motorway growth cities - Thames Gateway and another one that's going to go up Stanstead, Cambridge, Peterborough - that's the future. So without really intending it this third book has become the conclusion to this movement out of London.

I saw in the Standard that the Hasidic Jewish community in Stanford Hill who are a very visible presence are actually decamping to Milton Keynes or they're planning to, so you get this kind of sense that there's a great dispersal from London and I think that this book reflects that.

There is a second element in it as well in that my wife's family came from the same village as John Clare and her father had claimed that they were related so it becomes a search back into the traces of this family and what happened when he got away in relation to what happened when Clare got away.

Alan Moore had some involvement in this too?

He did. Clare spent the last twenty-odd years of his life in Northampton in the general lunatic asylum which had just been founded and of course Alan Moore is the kind of laureate of writing about Northampton. He lives in Northampton and there is a chapter about Clare in his book Voice of the Fire so when I wanted to finish the books I decided I'd have to go to this asylum and Alan Moore can be the guide to that part of the book. It turned out that he went to school over the wall from the asylum on the other side and he'd spent a lot of his time biking along the edges of the asylum, sneaking into the swimming pool, and he knew a lot of people who worked there and so I got Alan's side of the story which was very interesting.

Talking about Alan brings up graphic novels. Slow Chocolate Autopsy with Dave McKean and It's Dark in London but nothing since?

No nothing since, not by my choice as I like that area very much. I only got a glimmering of what you could do with a collaboration with Dave McKean, but the problem with Dave is he's so popular and busy that you can never get hold of him.

He has a movie coming out too.

I think he has, yes. I'd love to do more in that area as those were only the beginning, a sort of trial run, very close to the film collaborations with Chris Petit and Dave McKean as well. I think the technology now is such that you could do DVDs or books and we've discussed this a lot, but there's been no obvious solution yet. It is something I'd love to do.

Londonist has been covering the nonsense surrounding some of the Alan Moore movie adaptations. Do you feel safe from the clutches of Hollywood?

Yes! I wouldn't say no, I'd love it, but it's not going to happen. After seeing what the complexity of Alan Moore's From Hell is sort of reduced to. My impression from seeing him is that he doesn't feel very good about this, he's not even taking the money from them. He's fallen out at a time when all his stuff is getting signed up. I don't think that any of the films so far have had the imagination of the original product. It's just sign on the dotted line and let it go. I would really like to work with film because I started as a filmmaker and although the books are completely literary constructs all of them have elements that can be stripped out and simplified. Because they are pitched on landscape very often and place and documented event they would translate into film quite nicely.

It's surprising that the BBC haven't approached you to do something.

I haven't had a whisper from anyone. I was chatting to Chris Petit the other day and now the technology has turned around it's almost at the point where you could do your version very cheaply and get it onto DVD and do something outside the system. So maybe we'll begin to do that.

You seem to be drawn to other writers and artists that are also outside the system. Bill Drummond for example. What was it that struck you about his Bad Wisdom?

I knew Bill, I'd seen pieces of his writing and I thought he was a good writer. He had a very direct tone of voice that I liked and this was a very mad project, a mad book, but wildly dynamic and I was very happy to give it some support. He's a seriously obsessive writer and it's interesting to see where he's gone to. He's also someone who wants to keep control of his own means of production. I'm not sure how happy he was going into the main stream and having the thing taken away from him. I think he probably feels more comfortable doing the ones that come out of his own process. He just sort of guerrilla operates, he drops them here and there and then he's off on his next project.

I've got a piece by him that I like very much. I'm doing a book at the moment, an anthology called London: City of Disappearances which has turned out to be huge. It's sort of a vision of everything that's there and not there. Sometimes vanished buildings, people, libraries, stories, fables… whatever. I offered it to a whole range of people and their responses were always very different. Bill Drummond said he would do something but then he didn't and didn't and didn't… and I could see that this was a problem and then when I got the piece it revealed that he hates London and the idea of London. He decided to do this strange walk. He goes right across London essentially to the Eleanor memorial in Charing Cross, treating her as a disappearance, and he just sort of plods straight through, but it's filled with loathing for most of it. It's got that tone of voice that he does so well.

Alan Moore has also done a huge piece in this book about south of the river and that's one of the highlights of this book. But there are also lots of fragments from lesser known people as well as those underground luminaries.

Does it ever frustrate you that the average guy on the street doesn't see London as you do?

No, because if he did it would make me redundant completely! You've got to be crazy enough to spend the time poking about in all these other things and keep your eyes open. Most people are too busy just getting from A to B, although I think that's changing. I see many more people now stalking about, dozens of cameras recording all aspects, making artwork... there's too many. I'm frightened of it.

And technology? You said before we started that you'd only recently begun working with email and the internet.

Well I don't really work with it now, but what happened was that with this particular book, the anthology, there was so much disparate material coming in that it had to be done through some other form because my computer is so ancient I can't access a lot of this stuff. So my wife agreed to take on a laptop and handle the backwards and forwards and bit by bit I've been drawn into responding.

It is very efficient obviously and I did an interview yesterday for Stride magazine through this and I just found it quite a strange form, but it worked very well because it was done straight off the top of my head so it's fast, instantaneous. But I always find that it creates work. I only open it up once a day or so and there's so much stuff that now a great chunk of the day is spent replying to these where with the post I'd let them pile up until the weekend and then take a few hours and you were free. It's an advantage and a disadvantage.

We always try and do interviews face to face so it was nice to be invited over like this.

Well I always much prefer to have an actual conversation than to just anonymously respond to somebody. People's lives can disappear into the technology because you're there with this thing all the time. I find it's the same with a lot of research. Say you have to do a radio programme on a particular topic so you go in and the other three people have all got exactly the same information because they've googled it. Interesting things have come up very fast so they've built all this stuff, but it isn't the same as if you've actually gone out there and you've pissed around. You may have missed a lot of things, but what you have found you really know about. And it gives you more bizarre information… so I think it's a great tool, but there's also a danger of smoothing everything out and leaving everything on a kind of mean. Also people will interview me and say they've looked stuff up and the same kind of mistakes and points come through time and time again. It's not the same as picking up the actual books and reading them and being involved in them for years.

And London itself? How do you feel it's changed recently?

Well it's obviously evolving all the time but I think we're in another quite aggressive phase. It's not quite like that feeling of the Thatcherite docklands boom area but there is this complete kind of fixation on putting up these endless Barratt like estates and blocks and blocks of flats and then an immense tearing down in preparation for grand projects. I think that's a dangerous notion where you pitch everything into an Olympic bid which then remakes the landscape and wipes out so much very quickly regardless. And then creating these estates at Thames Gateway out of nothing with no organic background. So it's a bad time but an interesting time to write about again because the more bizarre and bad things get, the more interesting it is for writers.

Not happy to see Tony Blair back in then?

No! I would have liked to see him go on trial but that wasn't likely to happen. No choice though… do you want Michael Howard to come in? No, it's impossible. So democracy in that sense doesn't operate. It's a self fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind. No one much wants him to come back in, but the system is in such a way that he will and there's not a lot you can do about it unless you have a revolution.

George Galloway?

Oh yes, phenomenally impressive performance art, this thing where he steamed in there. The rights and wrongs of it aside, it took them by completely by surprise that anyone would bring these points up and put it straight to them. It doesn't happen.

It obviously looked bad for the Americans, but it also showed up our own politicians who apart from a love of sound bites have little or no skill at speaking in public.

We've come to such a culture of mendacity that nothing means anything anymore. It's just this endless smokescreen. And it's deeply depressing because the thing that is utterly demeaned is language. Nobody says what they mean and they discover ways of 'not saying' rather than 'saying'.

So when the Times Literary Supplement describes your writing as "full of fizzy sentences"?

It makes me sound like Alka-Seltzer. It's a funny thing that I get from those sort of critics is that what they discuss is the structure of the sentences, language and paragraphs. I have no sense of crafting sentences at all. It's just a completely natural way of writing for me. I think it happens as a way of avoiding discussing what I'm actually doing the sentences about -what is actually going on. Which is harder work so you just describe the sentences. Like instead of an actor's performance you describe what they wear, their hairstyle or their shoes. It's a way of stepping back from the subject.

Michael Moorcock once said that your work was "pretty free of plot, but not story". Do you find plotting contrived?

That sort of sense of industrial structure which for me has been the death of Hollywood movies in which you can see the cogs working… You can see this big drama up in the first five seconds, then this, then that, then that, so it's writing by numbers, making films by numbers and I think a lot of books are posited on the same kit. You structure things in a particular way as the plot revolves and the idea is just to keep the pages turning so that things happen at the end of each section. I just can't think in that way. Although I do feel that there are, in my terms - even if a lot doesn't come over - that I have worked on a kind of underlying structure. often through metaphor and repetition and all kinds of curious hints and coding that do eventually resolve themselves. But not in the sense of a 'what happens next' plot.

Which brings us neatly back to Burroughs

Well I suppose he couldn't be accused of over-plotting. Naked Lunch was assembled by other people from piles of loose things. He composed more or less like a poet just by inspiration, just hit off a great routine. Routine was his word for it, like a stand up comedian. From that people would just edit it like a film. 'This bit feels good against that bit' and they'd put it together, but it's a book of routines rather than a 'beginning, middle and an end' book. I suppose that was influential on me.

Aside from London what other cities, if any, do you feel for?

None. I don't know them well enough. I'm a tourist everywhere else. I have a certain sense of Britain because I spent a lot of years roving around as a book dealer so there are lots of landscapes and places in Britain that appeal to me greatly, but whenever I've tried to write about them it's never worked very well. One book I did on the Welsh borders was thought to be a wrong move by many people so I feel condemned more or less to deal with the matter and mythology of London even if its expanding out to the fringes.

Or with this recent John Clare book which is sort of about what happens when you get away from London. Or what happens to him as being this so called 'peasant poet' who comes into London and is suddenly exposed to what London is and what a nightmare that was for him, but having done it there's no way back into the old self. So London is the dominant cultural thing. I don't know the other cities of Britain well enough to know what their effect would be.

Any new writers on London caught your eye?

Not really. Especially not fiction. Stewart Home is always interesting on London. But elsewhere there's a very generic fiction developing around say Brick Lane or whatever, but it doesn't to me have any of the possession that Mike Moorcock would have had from his time in Notting Hill. A real sense of an imagined city on top of the actual one. The current ones to me feel more like journalistic research - you dig into something, you create a structure and maybe that's a genre that's got to evolve but I haven't been convinced yet by any of that I've seen. But there is a lot of good non fiction stuff, Sarah Wise's Italian Boy about resurrectionists was a terrific book.

Stewart Home was one of many authors linked to Belle de Jour. Was that something you found amusing?

I saw something in the Standard that suspected it was Stewart Home and I assumed immediately that that was one of his japes. I wrote to him about it and he tried to keep it going. It might be true it might not be true. I don't know.

No one has admitted to it...

It is surprising, but I don't think it is Stewart.

The book's now been out for a while of course...

So do you think that at the point where people are bored with the book and when it begins to disappear then someone will come forward and say 'well yeah, it was all written by Gordon Brown'? What's your feeling about it?

Well anything's possible, but we've followed the website from quite early on and never read the book, but it never really read like it was written by an actual London prostitute. And it seems too restrained to be Stewart Home.

I'm sure it isn't. Once the thing was up and running I could see him stepping in and doing something, but I think you'd be able to tell from the language if it was Stewart Home.

That book deal seems to point to the lack of ideas coming out in not just publishing, but all aspects of media at the moment...

It's like what happened in film. Let's have another Dan Brown. Just today someone wanted to commission a TV series and they wanted conspiracies and mysteries and they wanted to adapt Hawksmoor, but revamp that like Dan Brown. The fact that all this stuff was knocking around years before Dan Brown and the fact that the whole Dan Brown thing comes out of the back of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is completely bizarre. Everything is turned back to front and you end up with someone with original material then being asked to imitate the imitators.

It seems there's been a steady decline in the quality of published novels over the last few years. Is that something you've noticed?

I've felt that very strongly, that it's going rapidly down.

It seems to be following the Hollywood model of finding the 'next big thing'. Throwing money at 18 year olds...

That's essentially what they want: a photogenic 18 to 25 year old with possibly an interesting story in their past. Just a one book pitch that you can go right out on big time. And then they're not really that interested in their second or third book. To some extent they've created a brand or a franchise, but it's first book syndrome. It's quite depressing for the kind of writers who grind away at it for years sort of honing their craft and then do the book. Unless they get to be completely old and crazy or they've had some criminous past that can be used they're just not going to get their books done. I find it depressing that publishing is becoming a branch of the celebrity industry.

I suppose it's inevitable. The nature of the shops has changed so much too, going into those ones that are very Americanised, all glittery and bright, coffee and all that. The old dusty heaps have gone from the landscape.

We re-watched the John Mills Quatermass recently and it struck us how vivid the idea was there that the UK would be crushed and polluted by Americanisation.

That's exactly what's happening. We don't really have an independent existence anymore. It's just an aircraft carrier for the U.S. and whatever they want they do and they get. And we have these slick operators selling this to the people, pushing it through.

What did you think about the last round of policies that seem to have been created on a whim, like the fact that kids can't wear a hooded top...

It's crazy. Totally Orwellian or like something out of V for Vendetta. At the same time there's this proliferation of these zombie Clockwork Orange estates that are going to create havoc in years to come because there's nothing there. They're just dumped under pylons by the side of the motorway with nothing to go to but Bluewater. And if you do go there you get banged up for wearing a hoodie. But what else are you going to do around there? You're in a landscape of nothingness like a third world desert.

Were you surprised about the outcry over the London Eye recently?

Not really no. It's quite interesting how that turned around. When it went up it was thought to be a shocking idea - this fairground wheel - which is really nothing in itself, and then suddenly it works. Bizarrely it's popular. People go up in this thing and now everyone is sentimental about it. People are up in arms and Ken Livingstone, who is very strategic in most things he does, declares he'll buy the land so this great thing is not lost. It's a piece of complete tat really. It's neither here nor there . Part of this funfair redevelopment of the riverfront. It becomes a celebrity ring round because newspapers are filled up with people who make these phone calls. Just ring up and see how many celebrities you can get to come out with some idiot bubble thought, get a picture of the thing and that's the page filled up. Any kind of quality of proper journalism goes out the window.

Last Updated 10 June 2005