Writing the Great Necropolis

I cross the border into deepest darkest Hackney, a journey worthy of Conrad, taken aboard a 394 all the way from Angel to Homerton High Street. This journey should have its own blue plaque, a magical mystery tour through the fringe of the old City, through its plaque pits, burial grounds and hunting fields. White Conduit House, The Eagle, Shoreditch, London Fields. It’s a moving expo of public housing schemes from the best of the LCC 4-storey blocks built but idealists to seventies efforts fit only for crack-dens.
The purpose of my pilgrimage back to my post-Poly stomping grounds is to listen to London’s seer, Iain Sinclair sharing a platform with two other writers who use the city as their muse, Maureen Duffy and Ferdinand Dennis. The venue is a treasure, Sutton House that boasts to be the oldest dwelling in East London and I’m guessing that it’s C16/C17th. I remember it as the place I could never get into, kept impossible hours and my days back then were divided between the Job Centre, the library and Mare Street pubs.
Sinclair reads for perhaps 15 minutes but it’s long enough to deliver a few choice lines on how working in freight yards and parks he created a kind of “mythic geography” of the area; that his London is defined by invisibility and secrecy, and Mike Moorcock turned back at the river unable to cross the Thames heading south.
Duffy and Dennis offer slightly different visions of our great necropolis. Duffy has memories of the blitz and Dennis delivers fruity slices of the post-war immigrant experience. But as Duffy reminds us we’re all immigrants in London (in England I’d say).
It triggers off various thoughts. For me London is a city that dis-locates you rather than gives you a sense of location. So much is buried beneath our feet and behind the brickwork that echoes of past lives pulse up through the pavement and seep through the plaster.
When I walk to work I cross the River Fleet, “River of Wells”. Despite being beneath Kings Cross Road/ Farringdon Road there is a tangible divide when the river is crossed. Again when I emerge from Fetter Lane into Fleet Street the atmosphere alters as I enter the realm of Sweeney Todd and Samuel Johnson.
I came home from Hackney via the more prosaic No.38, one of the last surviving Routemasters and alight at the end of Essex Road. Homerton feels a million miles away, down below us on boggy ground while we swan around on the sacred Penton Mound.

Iain Sinclair & Will Self at St Luke’s Church 14.07.04

Should have blogged this ages ago but just didn’t get round to it.
They come out onto the stage of the restored Church, two living icons of English prose, and launch straight into Sinclair’s memories of St. Luke’s when it was derelict and overgrown. They instigate a tension between themselves but it appears to be largely an act for the audience. Will Self clearly loves Iain Sinclair’s prose and Sinclair is halfway through Self’s latest book. But the conflict they play with is that between the writer who carved out a living from his pen from his mid-twenties and still turns out hack columns for whoever’ll pay and the former Parks gardener, book dealer and underground writer. It also plays as Native Londoner versus Incomer. They play it well, Sinclair dodging direct references he doesn’t like. Self coming out with streams of incomprehensible Selfisms, dictionary-speak that the editor of the OED would be hard-pressed to translate.
Will Self inevitably gets on to the vexed question of ‘psychogeography’ and asks Sinclair how he defines his variety of psychogeography adding the aside that it doesn’t seem to relate much to the Guy Debord/Situationist idea. Sinclair acknowledges this and says he picked it up via Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association and it gave him a convenient brand image for his obsession with Hawksmoor and Ley Lines. He doesn’t duck it, and when Cathy asks him what parameters he sets for his walks he has none, just goes out for a wander when he has the time. It confirms my doubts that ‘London Orbital’ isn’t psychogeography in its purest form but merely a walk with lots of literary and esoteric associations. Not quite the reconnaissance mission before the city is reclaimed that Debord et al cooked up in Paris. Sinclair says as much when he talks about “nodules of energy” -and gives examples of the area around St Lukes, the place where Milton died, house where Defoe lived, Hawksmoor’s obelisks.
It’s a vibrant chat, Self is entertaining and plays to the gallery. Sinclair gets in the odd jibes: “I can see all those columns from the years stuck in your back”. “That Iain is a frankly hostile vision”, Self retorts, “Unlike you Iain, I was writing fulltime from my twenties and had to make a living”.

We walk up Old Street afterwards, Cathy telling me all the negative stuff she had thought about Self before this evening, me setting her straight, giving a potted history of his career and about to recount his reprising of Hunter S Thompson on the campaign trail for his 1992 NewStatesman election coverage, when we stop to look at a pub and Will Self virtually walked into the back of us.

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