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

Following W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz through the East End

Austerlitz walk – Liverpool Street to Mile End

A walk following the route taken by W.G Sebald through the East End of London when writing his acclaimed novel Austerlitz, in the company of artist Bob and Roberta Smith. The central character of the book, Jacques Austerlitz arrived in England at Liverpool Street Station as a young child on the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The station plays an important role in the book and was where our walk started. The route was provided to Bob and I by writer Iain Sinclair who had re-traced Sebald’s footsteps guided by poet Stephen Watts who had led Sebald on his East End drifts. An evocative account of these walks can be found in Iain’s wonderful book The Last London.

Our walk ended in the gloom of Tower Hamlets Cemetery, unable to find the stone angel pictured in Sebald’s book.

The key locations are: – The Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street Station, Toynbee Hall, Greatorex Street (home of Yiddish poet Abraham Stencl), Brady Street Jewish Cemetery, Alderney Road, Tower Hamlets Cemetery, St. Clement’s Hospital (site of).

Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.

Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On

Fantastic uplifting scenes yesterday at the march and rally to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street when the people of the East End poured onto the streets to stop Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts marching through the Jewish East End on 4th October 1936. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his speech, it marked an important turning point in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930’s – Mosley had strong support among the British Establishment and had gained the sympathy from powerful right-wing newspapers (you can probably guess which). ‘The Battle’ that took place in 1936 was between the Metropolitan Police and the public defending the East End Streets – the Met there to protect Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. A Police Liaison Officer I spoke to in the march joked about how a he’d have received a very different reception from the crowd in 1936. He’d have been baton charging them on a horse most likely.

80 Years on and this was not a day of conflict but of celebration, a day to remember an important moment of unity and reflect on the lessons we still need to learn today. Nearly everyone I spoke to in the video above stressed that echoes of the rhetoric of division and hatred from the 1930’s were rearing their heads again. Racially motivated attacks in post-Brexit Britain are on the rise. Our tabloids spread fear and hatred of refugees.

The Great Yiddish Parade band soundtracked the day with interjections from a vocal anti-fascist section who chanted slogans in Italian and lit the way with multi-coloured flares. Banner of the event for me was the Woodcraft Folk – satin green hoisted on heavy-looking wooden poles and catching the wind blowing down Commercial Road. I was told how the Woodcraft Folk had lined up alongside the rainbow coalition of Jewish, Anarchist, Communist, Irish, and Trade Unionist groups who turned out on that day in 1936.

I also spoke with a friend of Altab Ali – the young Bangladeshi man stabbed to death by racists in 1978. The park where he was murdered today bears his name and was the mustering point for the march.

Cable Street 1936 is a powerful resonator in the history of London and events such as those yesterday remind us of the power of unity and community that we must never forget.