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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

  1. He’s SO HARD to read, you plough on and find you’ve started skimming across the surface. He’s also obsessed with Johns Dee and Clare. Do I mean John Clare? The poor poet. Anyway, Sinclair’s biog of him nearly drove me round the bend, but I did like London Orbital …

    • I admit I skimmed parts of this one – especially the esoteric Ashmole/Dee parts. I’d like to try his Orison book about Clare’s walk, but have read mixed reviews, so approach it with trepidation

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