‘first a man and then a street’ – Iain Sinclair
Influences are tricky things, running like pathways of mercury through a writer’s life. In part, to name a literary influence is to limit yourself, to take a place on the second step behind some greater figure. Sometimes, though, the opposite is true, and by naming your influences you’re puffing up your chest and pushing your way to the top of the plinth, braving whatever scorn that ambition might attract. (‘So. We’re Faulkner now are we…?’) With that in mind, looking at the ground, fiddling in my pockets and shifting my feet, I may as well say that, yes, well, I’d count Iain Sinclair as one of my influences.
I’ve never wanted to write like Iain Sinclair, though. His prose style- part Blakean visionary, part pulpy James Crumley- is certainly persuasive, but I’ve heard the Mockneyed version of it in a few too many other writers now, and never wanted to fall into that trap. And I wasn’t quite the kind who wandered the East End using Lights Out for The Territory like it was Nairn’s London, to invoke a put down I remember from an interview with Christopher Petit. The main thing I think I’ve taken from him is a viability of approach. That American influences could be invoked without invoking the slangy mannerisms of Martin Amis. That you could write a novel about Britain without falling into comedies of class or race. That history lived through ghosts which were personal as much as political. That you might write poetry and fiction, make films, indeed create anything without being limited to that traditional, agoraphobic figure of the writer. That it was possible to write about a nuanced locality of depth, rather than the glib fiction of the global. And I’d be lying if I said that his earlier work didn’t shape my first years of living in London.
The last time I saw Sinclair read, it struck me that an anxiety had started to possess him. He talked about the ghosts of Camden, of the streets around Compendium bookshop, of his journeys there hauling a rucksack filled with poetry pamphlets. Whereas stories like this had previously been imbued with a personal myth, they seemed almost apologetic. He talked about the time he had worked as a gardener on the Isle of Dogs, and while he didn’t quite admit that all of it used to be fields, he came quite close. In American Smoke, his recent book about tracing his own literary influences across the US, there’s some of that similar anxiety. Alongside the pursuit of the outsiders like Charles Olson, Roberto Bolano, Gary Snyder there are its baffled references to ‘electronic life’, a grouchy encounter with the fan lore of Twilight (‘About which I know nothing’). Most tellingly of all, there is the pained reference to ‘a London destroyed in six months that you have spent your whole life learning’.
The character of London has always been defined by its necessary mutations. Post-Olympics, post-Malaysian land grab- the city is defining its twenty-first century identity. Even to someone who has flitted in and out over the last twenty year, who probably counts as much of the problem as the solution*, elements of the current version lack appeal. The yellow-walled boozers, the markets where you always felt guilty for wanting to buy something, the decaying streets where various shadows (Daniel Defoe, William Blake, Derek Raymond) seemed to have recently stolen around a street corner, all have started to resemble a corner of a clone town, or a Californian tech hub, or Dubai. I’ve always believed that landscape is everything to a piece of writing. Without a recognizable and distinct geography, the work is formless, only chatter, lacking relevance to what keeps us telling stories; we talk about being grounded for a reason. I’d like to think that Iain Sinclair can recognize that his body of work remains inspirational for, amongst other things, the way in which geography is almost indivisible from theme. It would be a shame if he also becomes a warning of what happens when a writer’s chosen landscape begins to slip beyond their grasp.
*This rant from Michael Moorcock’s Mother London always stick in my mind. ‘They’re coming in from Middlesex, from Surrey, Kent and Essex, from Hertfordshire and Beds. They’re swimming in from the shires to steal the benefits of our life and our work.’
Words © Daniel Bennett
9 thoughts on “London Smoke: Iain Sinclair”
Very interesting. I’ve just read Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck, and got the same sense of anxiety from that. In fact, I feel it myself – as you get older, the familiar landmarks of your youth seem to disappear.
Thanks for the comment. Yes, age clearly has something to do with it. I find the way we identify with places fascinating, particularly as we get older. I think it’s more acute for someone like Sinclair, as he’s examined London so thoroughly in his writing, and also as he’s acknowledged the potential for these kind of disappearances all along. It’s a grim thing, to discover that you’ve written yourself into oblivion.
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Sinclair has written himself into a corner. There was the poetry, then there were the novels and then a 25 year career excavating London for all it’s worth. Like any writer who dawdles too long in/on a place/subject (Hemingway, Ellroy, Waugh, Ballard) he’s become a parody of himself.
What is he meant to do, though? Not sure I’m interested in any writer who constantly reinvents themselves across genre and/ or place. Does the world want Iain Sinclair’s rom-com, or science fiction odyssey? Did Faulkner become a parody of himself? I’ve got frustrated with some of Sinclair’s London books over the years, and the novels slipped about halfway through Radon Daughters. That said, American Smoke had some great moments and his new book about Gower is the kind of thing,as a reader, that I’ve wanted from him for years. Isn’t dawdling too long in a place pretty much the point of everything he’s ever done?
I enjoyed American Smoke but I can’t shake the feeling that too often he resorts to recycling his own mythology: the walk as rite; the Ginsberg home-movies; submerged occult London; Prynne/Olson/Dorn; the Raymond-esque Spivs of the 2nd hand book trade. I’d quite like to read Sinclair’s science fiction odyssey actually. Strangely one of his biggest cheerleaders outside of the UK is William Gibson.
True enough, I guess. That element of recycling was certainly present in American Smoke. I think that accounts for the anxiety I’ve found in the work recently. That he has been dawdling too long, and the ground has shifted. And if Michael Moorcock can give us King of The City, then there’s no reason that Iain Sinclair can’t give us a Jerry Cornelius (maybe under the pseudonym of Iain M. Sinclair?)
I do think Sinclair is capable of genuinely great prose. I’d much rather he embraced his roots in the avant-garde and stopped bleating about the Olympics. London seems to be a zone that is simultaneously erasing its past and its people. I agree that perhaps that’s the source of his anxiety: his lover and muse has moved on without him. He’s dealing with a place that does not exist, only he doesn’t seem to have realised.
Yes, I continue to love his descriptive prose, and there’s a sense that he might have written a really great novel if he’d been so inclined. I think getting bogged down in subject is a danger for all writers, really, but particularly for a writer like Sinclair. But I do think he’s realised that the ground has shifted. Not just the London he knew, but also his style of writing, and even books in general. The references to ‘electronic life’ in American Smoke are quite revealing, I think.
A lot of American Smoke was concerned with ghosts. His depiction of Burroughs’ end years, Snyder (not especially friendly) at his compound, the non-existent Cal Shutter checking Man Utd scores in the Burbs, Olson in an ambulance, the ailments of his wife, forgotten European movie stars. It was a catalogue of the dead. And yet his prose is still virile, I’ll give him that!
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