The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)

 

I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.