The other week I had the great pleasure of walking to the highest point in the London Borough of Havering, Havering-atte-Bower, for Rick Pearson’s brilliant podcast, London’s Peaks. Rick’s podcast explores the highest point in each of the London boroughs with someone connected to the area.
The other month I finally shot an interview with brilliant artist Jessica Voorsanger in her studio at Norlington Road, Leyton.
Last week at the Wanstead Tap I had the great pleasure to talk to Iain Sinclair about his new book The Last London.
He read a passage about a walk along the Barking to Gospel Oak branch of the London Overground, a walk that I accompanied him on for a short section through Leytonstone, on the morning of Donald Trump’s US election victory.
“My theories at the time of Lud Heat, deriving from E.O Gordon, Alfred Watkins, John Michell, Nigel Pennick, were about lines of force connecting the churches, making patterns, and provoking crimes, rituals visitations, within an unregistered sphere of influence. What I now understood, in steady rain, on this morning of political madness, tracking an inoperative railway to a place nobody wants to go, is that the walks we are compelled to make are the only story. Walks are autobiography with author.”
Iain Sinclair’s work has had such a profound influence on London writing over the last 30 years at least, an influence that has stretched into film and visual arts. He synthesised a way of understanding the city and helped codify a new form psychogeography, distinct from its intellectual French roots. He expanded on the background to his hugely influential book Lud Heat:
“There was a period when you were able to absorb so many eccentric influences from all over and it goes back for me to a kind of collision for me between cinema and poetry which were my twin obsessives when I was very young and coming to London to be in film school and beginning to do long rambles and wanders and generally just to find one cinema to the next, whatever it was, and later as a gardener realising that the structure of these churches were enormously powerful and were in some ways, if you looked from the top of Greenwich Hill, connected. London was an irrational city but with rational plans put on top of it at various times generally doomed to fail in their own way but to become part of the story of the city.
I got very intrigued by that and from those kind of interests emerged a hybrid form of writing that was live day-to-day reportage of what I was doing as a gardener in an exciting part of London that I was only beginning to discover. And secondly then having the time to research the churches and their history in places like the Bancroft Road Library, which is sort of more or less gone now, which is a huge resource of local history and the librarians were so knowledgeable, they’d open up dusty boxes and show you all this stuff. It all fused together into a kind of writing that combined wild speculations, satires to do with the awful way the workers were treated down there and the idea that these jobs would disappear and that the landscape itself would disappear because we were treading on the ghosts of the future Docklands, ghosts come from both sides you know, ghosts of the things you find in the past, the ‘scarlet tracings’, but there were also ghosts of the future and they met in that landscape.”
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by comedian Dave Green for his Street View Interview YouTube series. It’s a great idea and was a lot of fun to do – an interesting way to revisit places that have played a part in my life while sitting on Dave’s bed in Leytonstone.
A couple of weeks ago I met up with film-maker Adam Scovell in the Olympic Park and we had a great chat about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair, psychogeography vs deep topography, the development of London etc.
A: So where does London Overground fit into this then?
J: Part of Iain’s genius is, in the book (and I hope it comes across in the film), dealing with a really unwieldy idea and set of issues to get your head around by addressing it with such a universal idea. I’ve been documenting various campaigns around London over the last few years, starting off with the E15 and even before. And where you look at it on a case-by-case basis, there are economic patterns that underpin this and ways which different local authorities deal with this. But, if you try and find a universal narrative, something that links it all together, it can be quite difficult. Also, from a campaigning pointing of view, you deal with specifics. So London Overground takes the simple device of walking in a day around the Overground, looking at that circuit, which is newly completed (before you had fragments) so we have a new circuit from disused track that ran from Dalston Junction to Whitechapel and other bits to complete a circuit that didn’t exist. In doing so, in a microcosm, it tells you the story of what’s happening in London today.
There’s also an edited version of the interview here on 3:AM Magazine
It was a suitably rambling chat (you can listen to the entire episode above) where I went on about YouTube for too long, but then it is integral to my development as a film-maker and also as a writer. I’d also recently realised that I’ve been on YouTube for 10 years now which is a bit of a landmark when you consider that the platform is just over 10 years old itself. We touched on the work-in-progress screening at Close-Up the week before where we screened 20 minutes of footage and discussed the film and book with Iain Sinclair.
The morning after the Close-Up screening I went out to do one of the final shoots with Iain picking up the Overground trail at St. Mary’s Church Battersea where William Blake got married Catherine Boucher in 1782.
The finished film will premiere in the East End Film Festival which runs from 23rd June – 3rd July.
Iain Sinclair was launching his latest book, 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films so I got the opportunity to interview the great London magus in the basement of the London Review Bookshop. This was the second time I’d interviewed Sinclair, the first was for my documentary, The London Perambulator in his Hackney home 6 years ago almost to the day.
On that occasion we’d talked off camera about Iain’s elusive film collaborations with Chris Petit that had been originally broadcast on Channel 4 – The Cardinal and the Corpse and The Falconer, now impossible to find on DVD or YouTube and Iain had invited me to watch them with him there and then on VHS. But I’d had to pass up this golden opportunity as the strong painkillers I was taking following knee surgery were making me dizzy and nauseous and it had been a massive effort to get through the interview without passing out on his floor.
Those Petit collaborations had eventually been screened in the 70×70 season put together by King Mob to celebrate Iain’s 70th birthday – a year of 70 films which had been mentioned in Sinclair’s books, and screened in venues both obscure and grand, some of them joining the ranks of the disappeared before the season had been completed.
The 70 x 70 book is more than just a record of this filmic dérive around London, it is a repertory cinema season on paper, the SCALA brought back to life in print; a revival of the world of wall-charts peppered with classics by Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Godard, unheralded oddities, all-nighters interrupted at 4am by a punk band to keep you awake. But it is also a form of autobiography, weaving a path through Sinclair’s life and work as he discusses the background to each selection, or “an accidental novel”, as he describes it.
So we chatted not just about the book. We spoke about Iain’s early years in London as a film student and eager cineaste, the Paul Tickell film for BBC’s Late Show that captured the world of Downriver when it was still provisionally titled Vessels of Wrath. This rare 20-minute gem included memorable scenes of Sinclair reading aloud in the still semi-derelict Princelet Street Synagogue and the notorious bookdealer Driffield scavenging for rare tomes in Gravesend and Tilbury.
He discussed his collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting. It led us to the subject of John Clare and the idea of ‘fugue’ walking, “… to do it purposefully, if that’s not a contradiction, seems quite an important way of dealing with a city that is a series of defended grids and official permeable ways that you can drift through that lead you to the next supermarket”. Walking, Sinclair told me is “absolute”; “The silence of just moving, hearing your own footfall, listening to the city, watching the city, drinking it through your pores”.
The interview came to a natural conclusion as the camera battery ran out just after Sinclair had recounted a pavement confrontation in Hollywood with a Warren Oates lookalike. The event organiser seized their moment and moved in as went to my bag for a spare. I could have kept asking him questions all night and Iain is so amiable and tolerant you sense he’d sit there patiently answering, but upstairs Chris Petit, Gareth Evans and Susan Stenger were waiting sat before a packed audience for the 70×70 launch event.
This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine