Secrets of the City with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair walk – Austin Friars to Mile End Road

This was a mystery walk, and a walk of secrets revealed. It seemed to come out of the blue. I thanked the great writer Iain Sinclair for the directions he’d provided for the Austerlitz walk I did with Bob and Roberta Smith and sent him a link to the video. He replied saying that he’d show me the house in Alderney Road where he believed the fictional character in Sebald’s book had lived. In addition, he said, we could add to the Van Gogh walk we’d done at the back end of 2018, and loop in two of Iain’s recent projects – his journey to Peru following the footsteps of his great-grandfather, and a piece he’d written for the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair at Austin Friars

I met Iain outside WH Smith at Liverpool Street Station, once part of the opulent Great Eastern Hotel. Among Iain’s many casual jobs in the past, he’d worked night shifts at the Station (from memory as a baggage handler?) in the days when it was a dark and dingy terminus, as described in Austerlitz. We moved on quickly through the City, heading south down Old Broad Street, breeching London Wall, then diving into Austin Friars Passage off Great Winchester Street. Iain touches the ‘pregnant’ wall in the alleyway, “you actually can put your hand on it, avoiding the chewing gum, and you take the temperature of another era of London,” Iain says. ‘Taking the temperature’ of London is a good description of Iain Sinclair’s work. He’s had an amazing knack of finding the territory that contains the story of London at that particular time, the Thatcher era in Downriver, the mid-90′ end of Tory rule in Lights Out for the Territory, the early bravado Blair years at the turn of the millenium with London Orbital, through to the new city being spun out of the Overground railway with London Overground. Today we’d be slicing across these timelines ending back with one of Iain’s earliest works, Lud Heat, where he accidentally gave birth to a particular Anglo-Celtic variation of psychogeography while working as a gardener in the churchyards of the East End.

 

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Plantation Lane

The church at Austin Friars was home to London’s Dutch community in the 19th Century and was visited by Vincent Van Gogh. His sketch of Austin Friars Church is one of the few artworks he produced during his time in England. We follow this leg of the Van Gogh trail into Gracechurch Street, where the commercial gallery he worked for had a branch.

A coffee shop triggers the next chain of assocations on our walk, which now diverts its theme to Iain’s recent travels to Peru tracing the journey of his great grandfather, who had been sent there in the late 1800’s by the Peruvian Corporation of London. His mission had been to travel deep into the upper Amazon to see what crops could be grown there. The conclusion that the land would be suitable for the cultivation of coffee has its legacy in coffee shops and supermarket shelves the world over. You pick up references to this notable ancestor in various Sinclair works, particularly in Dining on Stones. This Peru expedition will be the subject of Iain’s next book, and you can read his blog posts of the trip here. There’s  a podcast in post-production and a film, The Gold Machine directed by Grant Gee, is due in the autumn.

Thames Wapping

 

We inevitably find ourside by the Thames, passing through the tourists laying seige to the Tower of London, talking of the legend of Bran the Blessed and the alignments linked by myth laid out in E.O. Gordon’s book, Prehistoric London, its mounds and circles (1904). From the start of this walk I’ve had no idea of the route, just following Iain through the City, knowing only that we will at some point arrive at Alderney Road in Stepney. We retrace some of our steps through Wapping from one of the walks for our London Overground film, passing the Thomas Rainsborough memorial and Turner’s Old Star.

Iain Sinclair walk

Chigwell Hill

We cross The Highway, the spire of St. George in the East lancing the East End sky. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and tagged as a nodal point in the psychogeography of London, largely thanks to Iain Sinclair’s early writings, you’d assume that St. George was where we were heading. But it turns out to be a site with possibly more tangible esoteric resonances.

Dodging into a small park beside the throbbing road, I find Iain stood looking at a London plane tree on a raised oblong of graveled ground. Swedenborg Gardens marks the spot where the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg was buried, in a churchyard since destroyed. It links to the Sebald story via Rabbi Chayim Samuel Jacob Falk, who was also said to be a kabbalist and alchemist. Falk, a friend and neighbour of Swedenborg’s in nearby Wellclose Square was buried in the Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery where Jacques Austerlitz lived in an a house overlooking the burial ground. “Both of these celebrated aliens, seekers and scholars, were buried in the ground of the territory: Falk at Alderney Road and Swedenborg beside the Highway,” wrote Iain Sinclair in the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair in Swedenborg Gardens

From Swedenborg Gardens we pass along storied Cable Street and up through Watney Market as the traders are packing away for the day. The dangling lights from the metal stall frames sway like lanterns in the late afternoon darkness. Sidney Street is yet another location on this schlepp with a tale to tell, Seige House feels like an odd tribute to the events of 1911 that took place down here.

Across Mile End Road and we home in on the end of the walk at Alderney Road, still calm and peaceful as described by W.G Sebald in Austerlitz. Iain guides me to the house where he believes the fictional Jacques Austerlitz would have lived given what can be extracted from the book. By now it’s pitch black and I ask Iain to stand under a street light for the camera. He willingly poses in the shower of lamplight, the occasional passing car casting additional illumination – the perfect end to an incredible walk.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair & Edith Walks at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema

Iain Sinclair Leytonstone

I had to photograph Iain Sinclair in front of Leytonstone’s Olympic Fish Bar in Church Lane. The great London writer had come to introduce his film collaboration with Andrew Kötting, Edith Walks at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema in Leytonstone Library. Iain had been a prominent critic of the London 2012 Olympics, resulting in Hackney Council temporarily banning him in 2008 from speaking in its libraries.

Iain Sinclair Leytonstone

Iain Sinclair introducing Edith Walks

Iain Sinclair Leytonstone

Iain Sinclair introducing Edith Walks at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema

When introducing Iain Sinclair, I mentioned how in the boom years of the psychogeography revival at the turn of the millenium, the idea of a Sinclair – Kötting collaboration was considered the psychogeographer’s ‘dream ticket’. Then while I was working at the National Film Theatre that dream ticket quite incredibly manifested itself with the film Offshore Gallivant, which screened at the NFT in 2006. Iain gave a humorous account of the making of the film as the crew spent the entire trip throwing up over the side of the boat meaning little footage was actually shot, however somehow Kötting still managed to make a film.

Iain related this to the making of Edith Walks, one of a number of subsequent collaborations between the pair, documenting a pilgrimage in the wake of King Harold’s wife Edith Swanneck from Waltham Abbey to the battlefield at Hastings. The nature of a 100-mile walk meant footage was not easy to capture throughout. Some of the scenes I shot at Waltham Abbey and on the towpath to Enfield Lock made their way into the final cut. A fair percentage of the film was shot on iphones using a Super8 app. The result was something magical and entrancing that the audience received warmly and sparked a fascinating discussion after the screening.

Edith Walks by Andrew Kötting

Iain Sinclair in Edith Walks directed by Andrew Kötting

Edith Walks Kötting

Claudia Barton as Edith Swan Neck

Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema is the first Wednesday of the month at Leytonstone Library

Vincent Van Gogh in Brixton – with Iain Sinclair

“I enjoy the walk from home to the office and in the evening from the office back home. It takes about three-quarters of an hour.”

– Vincent Van Gogh, 30th April 1874

A chilly December day and an invitation from Iain Sinclair to look inside the Brixton residence of Vincent Van Gogh, where the Dutch artist lived for a year between 1873 – 1874. The plan is to then follow Van Gogh’s footsteps on the daily walk he took to work at a commercial gallery in Covent Garden. Iain had recently been commissioned by Tate Etc. magazine to write an article on Van Gogh as a walker to coincide with the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain that runs until 11th August.

“So I began, unpremeditated, a series of walks through those odd, unreal, summer days while I attempted to connect Van Gogh’s English addresses. Surviving houses and chapels, in the end, feel less significant than the movement between them, when weather and light and random encounters effect an interweaving in the strands of time.”

– Iain Sinclair, Tate Etc. Issue 45

Van Gogh Ramsgate

Van Gogh sketch of Ramsgate

Van Gogh didn’t start producing art until he left London, aside from occasional sketches in the margins of letters he sent to his brother Theo. But he did spend a lot of his time in Britain walking, not only in London but also when he worked in a school in Ramsgate.

“Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”
– Vincent Van Gogh, January 1874

Van Gogh House

Van Gogh House, 87 Hackford Road

Our journey starts though, at the San Mei Gallery nearby in Stockwell, the owners of which have recently purchased the property at 87 Hackford Road and are in the middle of a grand restoration project. Livia Wang told us about their plans for the Van Gough House, to host international artist residencies, tours and workshops aimed at the local community, and a studio space. I remembered the production of Nicholas Wright’s play, Vincent in Brixton that I’d seen multiple times while working at the National Theatre in 2002. Nicholas Hytner’s magical production brought that Hackford Road home vividly to life, featuring a debut performance by a young Emily Blunt playing the landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer, with whom the Dutchman fell hopelessly and unrequitedly in love.

“My dear Theo,

I now have a room, as I’ve long been wishing, without sloping beams and without blue wallpaper with a green border. It’s a very diverting household where I am now, in which they run a school for little boys.”
– Vincent Van Gogh, 30th April 1874

Vincent in Brixton

flier for the event I produced and hosted at Brixton Art Gallery, 2002

Iain leads the way from the house in Hackford Road up Van Gogh Walk and onto Clapham Road. He notes the speed at which Van Gogh must have walked in order to do the journey in 45 minutes. We proceed along Clapham Road, past Kennington Park and the Old Town Hall down Kennington Road to Lambeth North, Victorian Van Gogh era houses lining the route. We cross Westminster Bridge, a point in his commute that the painter in embryo noted in his letters, the light over the Thames.

Van Gogh Walk Cutdown 1.00_10_22_15.Still013

Lambeth Walk

Van Gogh Walk Cutdown 1.00_12_44_03.Still015
We then proceed along Whitehall to the National Gallery and Iain can’t resist going into the gift shop to buy a postcard of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, another piece of the painter still in London. The final leg of the journey takes us along the Strand and then ascend Southampton Street where there’s no trace of the gallery where Vincent worked selling prints to affluent Londoners.

 

You can book guided tours of the Van Gogh House here

The Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate runs until 11th August 2019

 

Iain Sinclair – Living with Buildings

“I use my own ways of digressing and picking up on other stories that you don’t expect to find by walking and wandering over the ground that’s been described by other people.” – Iain Sinclair

July 2018 and I found myself back out walking with Iain Sinclair, this time retracing one of the walks in his latest book, Living with Buildings and walking with ghosts. We met by Canada Water Station and Iain explained how the book was associated with the Wellcome Collection exhibition of the same name, but was its own beast driven by Iain’s narrative.

John Evelyn's Mulberry Tree, Sayes Court

John Evelyn’s Mulberry Tree, Sayes Court

We proceeded past the old Evening Standard printing works, now slated for development, through Greenland Dock bound for the Pepys Estate – once the home of film-maker Andrew Kötting and featured in the book. After paying homage we moved on to the next key location in this particular chapter of Living with Buildings – John Evelyn’s Mulberry tree at Sayes Court Park.

Iain Sinclair Living with Buildings

Walking with Iain is always a magical experience, layers of London history and lore kicked up and chewed over with every step along the way.  The book, in some ways, is Iain Sinclair’s most traditionally psychogeographical work, exploring the very tangible relationship between the built environment and  human health and psyche.

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to further discuss the book and Iain’s work in general at the brilliant Wanstead Tap when Living with Buildings was published in October – as you can see in the video below.

London Overground with Iain Sinclair – watch the full documentary online

London Overground retraces legendary London writer Iain Sinclair’s journey with film-maker Andrew Kötting around the Overground railway for the book of the same name. Directed Shot and edited by John Rogers.

The film follows Sinclair reprising the walk over the course of a year rather than the day’s walk of the book. Iain is once again joined by Kötting in parts, along with Chris Petit (director of Radio On) and Bill Parry-Davies on the 35-mile circular yomp.

London Overground charts Sinclair walking through this changing landscape from his home in Hackney, through Shoreditch down to Wapping where he revisits his earlier book Downriver. In the company of Andrew Kötting once more they ramble in both senses from the Thames foreshore at Rotherhithe through Canada Water, Surrey Quays to Queens Road Peckham. At Willesden Junction he is joined by film-maker and author Chris Petit as they survey the developments around Old Oak Common. Sinclair and Kötting walk through the night to reprise their original yomp in reverse. Dalston is surveyed with local campaigner Bill Parry-Davies logging what has been lost in the rampant redevelopment and checking in on cherished corners of the area. We meet noir novelist Cathi Unsworth at Shepherds Bush/Westfield and artist Marcia Farquhar in Kentish Town.

What emerges from the film is a snapshot of the city in transition and also a unique insight into the most important chronicler of contemporary Londoner. ‘The city’ Sinclair says at one point, ‘is a series of psychic mappings that reinforce our own identity’.

Featuring original music by Standard Planets, Bill and Adam Parry-Davis, and Free Seed Music.

London Overground premiered at the East End Film Festival with a screening at the Rio Cinema, Dalston – 2nd July 2016

Unearthings: On and Off Watling Street with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting

Just under a year after the premiere of our film, London Overground, Iain Sinclair mentioned joining him out on the road again with my camera. This time he was walking a section of  Watling Street, the Roman road said to have much older origins, in the company of the great film-maker Andrew Kötting, from Canterbury to London. I joined them one morning along Shooters Hill Road in South London where they were accompanied by artist Anne Caron-Delion. This first walk followed the road to Westminster (another branch goes across London Bridge to the City) – passing over Blackheath, through Deptford (the ‘deep ford’), New Cross, Peckham, Elephant and Castle, along the way.

Enroute Iain had mentioned a second passage that related to Watling Street but branching off from Shooters Hill to take in the Shrewsbury burial mound and follow cult author Steve Moore’s ‘psychic circuit’ down to Woolwich. This brings Alan Moore into the story and led to a second walk. Steve Moore had been Alan Moore’s mentor, teaching him both the arts of magick and comic book writing. Alan had celebrated Steve’s territory of Shooters Hill in an essay published in London, City of Disappearances, entitled Unearthing. This seemed like the perfect title to appropriate as the title for the film.

 

The film that I made from the two walks ‘on and off’ Watling Street with Iain Sinclair was premiered at an event at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards-on-Sea last October, where Andrew Kötting also premiered his film of the whole walk, A WALK BACK TO THE LAST LONDON BY WAY OF WATLING STREET.

The event was called, Lights Out for the Last London: Down Watling Street with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting and John Rogers.

“To pull away from its gravity, he sets off on a Watling Street pilgrimage with long term collaborators (and filmmakers) Andrew Kötting and John Rogers.
Their adventures, told through differing and contradictory memories, become a live performance, a conversation, a film of record.
The collision at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards is a unique coming together for the three walkers. Anything could happen.”

Kino-Teatr John Rogers Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting

The video above captures the discussion with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting after the screenings.

Edith Walks on DVD – Andrew Kötting, Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Jem Finer, Claudia Barton

edith walks dvd

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a number of pinch myself moments in my life (chatting about Liverpool FC with childhood hero Ian Rush was one), but having the opportunity to participate at the beginning of the journey and shoot some footage for this magical film, Edith Walks by visionary film-maker Andrew Kötting was certainly one of them. The performance event this summer at the East End Film Festival featuring the cast of this film – with Andrew, Iain Sinclair, Claudia Barton, Jem Finer and David Aylward was one of the highlights of the year. Now you can take the journey home on DVD.

Edith Walks Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair

“Following the Director’s bestselling Swandown film (2012), Edith Walks is a 60 minute 66 second feature film inspired by a walk from Waltham Abbey in Essex via Battle Abbey to St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, in Southern England. The film documents a pilgrimage in memory of Edith Swan Neck. Bits of King Harold’s body were brought to Waltham for burial near the High Altar after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and his hand fast wife Edith Swan Neck is seen cradling him in a remarkable sculpture at Grosvenor Gardens on the sea front in St Leonards. The film re-connects the lovers after 950 years of separation. The 108 mile journey, as the crow flies, allows the audience to reflect upon all things Edith. A conversation in Northampton between Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and Edith Swan Neck is also a key element to the unfolding ‘story’.
With images shot using digital super-8 iPhones and sound recorded using a specially constructed music box with a boom microphone the film unfolds chronologically but in a completely unpredictable way. Music by Jem Finer with David Aylward, Claudia Barton and Andrew Kötting. The numerous encounters and impromptu performances en route are proof, as if needed, that the angels of happenstance were to looking down upon the troop, with EDITH as their hallucination. Starring David Aylward, Claudia Barton, Anonymous Bosch, Jem Finer, Andrew Kötting, Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair.
Extra bonus film included: Forgotten the Queen (11 min) is a short animated film that digs into themes inspired by the life of Edith Swan Neck. In this, the Director’s daughter, Eden’s drawings and collages are brought to life by renowned animator, Glenn Whiting.”

(- from the Cornerhouse website)