A chat with Iain Sinclair in the basement of the London Review Bookshop

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.

70×70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in Film is published by King Mob

This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine

Roger Deakin quote from Waterlog

“Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

Birmingham wander

Headed up to Birmingham yesterday to show my two Solstice Walk super 8 short films in the Still Walking Festival – a screening organised by Magic Cinema and Video Strolls.

Rathayatra festival Birmingham

Leaving London can feel strange sometimes, my wanderings around and within the city occasionally breaking the borders into Essex or Middlesex feel transformative enough, so coursing through the open countryside on a Virgin train is like traveling to another country, leaving the City State for that mythical isle – ENGLAND.

Rathayatra Birmingham

After navigating a few of the city centre hills and valleys I followed the sounds of music into Victoria Square where devotees of Krishna were celebrating Rathayatra. Hindus always seem to look so happy – they clearly have something going on. I bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and chatted to the lady on the stall. I told her that I wanted a copy because I have an audio book by David Lynch where he keeps mentioning it, talking about meditation in that David Lynch voice of his but then digressing into an anecdote about Blue Velvet or Eraserhead. The lady on the stall looked slightly nonplussed.

I had about 2 hours for a wander and just followed my nose, through China Town then the Gay district. I have a pretty awful sense of direction at the best of times but Birmingham seemed to completely fry my navigational circuits sending me in large loops around rubble strewn car parks and wholesale markets. Andy from Magic Cinema said this was the effect of the city’s ‘concrete collar’, the asphalt noose formed by a series of ring roads.

The wide open roads and vacant lots put me in mind of the edge of Downtown Los Angeles. In fact it was Digbeth. I was told later that the area is full of artists’ studios and hidden galleries. It was here on Floodgate Street that I should have picked up the River Rea and followed it to Calthorpe Park, but somehow I missed it. Later at the screening I saw a film about a raft race on the Rea in the Digbeth Olympics, I now vow to go back and complete this walk.

I got sucked into The Custard Factory, and they mean ‘THE’ custard factory – Birds Custard, the only custard that matters unless you’re one of those ponces who does the Jamie Oliver recipe. Typhoo Tea was also round here, the essential tastes of England within a single block.

Birmingham is a Ruin Porn Paradise of which I only caught a glimpse. With every corner of London being magicked into luxury buy-to-leave apartments for offshore oligarchs to dump their ill-gotten gains, it was uplifting to see large parts of a city seemingly left to its own devices. Birmingham offers hope, for now at least, although god knows what effect HS2 will have.

The screening was in a fantastic space – Ort Cafe which had the vibe of the kind of place you imagine you’d find in San Francisco and reminded me of Glebe in Sydney. They made a cracking veggie burger which I complimented with a bottle of local Pale Ale. Ort is next door to the old Moseley School of Art, opened in 1900, closed in 1976 doing an Edwardian glamour contest with the public baths opposite.

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While I waited for the No.50 back to New Street Station, Dennis gave me many of the snippets of local knowledge I’ve briefly (mis)remembered here. He told me about the Tolkien link, how Birmingham is Middle Earth, Two Towers, Mordor and all. There’s even a Middle Earth Festival.

The No.50 in the opposite direction terminates at Druids Heath.

Best to watch this with the ‘HD’ turned on up to 1080


 

Have a look at this video by Andy Howlett searching for the River Rea and giving you some interesting info about Birmingham’s past

Walk along the Paddington Arm from Kensal Green to Northolt

Click  photos to enlarge

I haven’t been keen on canal walks recently – finding the towpath restricting my desire to drift and wander, the negation of a chance find at the end of a random sequence of turns. But yesterday I found the removal of choice liberating, locking myself onto the path at Kensal Green then chuntering along like a rickety barge till sunset and my need for beer and food got the better of me – which was around 4 hours later at Northolt, where I stumbled upon the beauties of Belvue Park and found a table at the back of the village pub across the green from St. Mary’s Church.

This branch of the Grand Union Canal offers a scenic slideshow of what remains of the ‘West London Industrial Belt’ – a zone that once employed around a quarter of million workers.
Delicious chocolate odors drift over the water from the United Biscuits factory at Harlesdon. Joggers, cyclists, and fisherman populated the canalside till I passed through Perivale then the people melted away and it was just the swans, ducks and cormorants.

‘Bet you didn’t know this about Redbridge – man pounds the streets looking for secrets’

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Here’s a great article about This Other London from the Ilford Recorder.

Even the most avid lover of Redbridge may learn something from a new book exploring the somewhat overlooked delights of London.

For example, did you know that Aldersbrook does not have any pubs as it was built when the anti-drink Temperance Movement was at its height?

Or that a grisly murder was committed in Belgrave Road, Wanstead, when Percy Thompson was killed by his wife’s younger lover in 1922?

Author John Rogers, 42, a keen walker, has travelled far and wide from Australia to India and quite a few places in between but said that London has just as much to offer for the adventurer.

With two reluctant knees, and a can of Stella in hand, the father-of-two trekked far and wide to discover the bits of our capital which deserve another look.

John said: “I’ve travelled but kept getting drawn back to London. I kept that spirit of adventure. London has places as wonderful as anywhere else and it’s all the more amazing because they are outside your doorstep.”

Ilford and Wanstead both feature in his book with the grand finale focusing on a trip to South Park, South Park Drive, Ilford, which started as a bet with his seven-year-old son.

“I was trying to get my kids to come on walks with me. One of them said he would if we went to South Park off the TV show.

“He thought we were going to Colorado but I took him to South Park in Ilford – he saw the funny side of it.”

He said the book gave him an opportunity to find answers to things he had always wondered about such as why there are no pubs in Aldersbrook.

“The estate was built in about ten years from 1899-1910 at the time when the Temperance Movement was very popular, which is why there’s no pub,” he said.

“It was built for city gents who wanted the country lifestyle but still commuted to the city.”

This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City will be published in September

W.G. Sebald’s Southwold

Southwold Beach huts

When I picked up The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald to take on holiday to Southwold I was only aware that it was based on a  walk around East Anglia – suspecting that it was set further along the coast in Norfolk.

Southwold lighthouse

But on the second day I turned to page 75 where there was a photo in the book just as the one above – the house we were staying in was in this row of terraced cottages beneath the lighthouse.

Gunhill Southwold

In the book Sebald recounts sitting on Gunhill footsore from his long walk from Lowestoft. He tells the story of the great naval battle that took place off the coast of Southwold on 28th May 1672 when the Dutch navy attacked the British fleet anchored in Sole Bay.

Southwold Sailors Reading Room

He also visits the Sailors Reading Room which, he writes, is by far his favourite haunt in Southwold.

Water towers Southwold

I decide to follow Sebald’s footsteps on part of the next stage of his East Anglian odyssey – from Southwold to Dunwich.

He mentions this 1930’s water tower that dominates the views around the town.

Southwold Common

A local council sign warns that there are adders on Southwold Common

footpath near Buss Creek Southwold

I pick up the footpath that hugs the bank of Buss Creek, it’s a boiling hot day and I start to think about plunging into the sea at the end of the walk

Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth - Sebald

Chapter V in The Rings of Saturn opens with an old photo of this Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth. Sebald repeats the local myth that the narrow gauge train that had run on this line linking Southwold to Halesworth had originally been commissioned for the Emperor of China in the mid-1890s.

River Blyth Southwold

I also attempted to match the next photo in the book which he somehow managed to take from the reverse angle looking downriver towards the bridge but I’m not prepared to sabotage the entire walk wading across the marshes to replicate somebody else’s photo. So this will have to do.

disused railway line Walberswick

He writes of how he was thinking about the Dowager Chinese Empress who had most likely commissioned the train as he walked along this stretch of the disused railway line – bound as he was for Dunwich.

footpath Walberswick

Sebald cut across the marshes to Walberswick but I became seduced by this bridleway.

sheds in Walberswick

The sheds in Walberswick are more humble than the brightly painted beach huts that sell for over 60 grand across the Blyth in Southwold.

ferry across the river Blyth

This is where I left the Sebald trail – he schlepped onwards to the lost city of Dunwich while I took the ferry back to Southwold. The lady rowing the ferry told me she was a 5th generation ferrymaster, a role passed down in her family from the 1850’s.

fishermen's huts Southwold

Back across the Blyth I consider buying fish fresh from the boat but somehow standing in a queue breaks the magic of walking – I need to keep moving.

Southwold Town Council

I soon arrive back at the civic centre of Southwold – for all its airs and graces you have to admire the modesty of its Council accommodation.

 

(have a look at my video postcard from Southwold )

Walk to Chingford

Lying on my back in the garden in the shade of the Sumac tree I kept seeing a view in my head. It wasn’t of Tuscan hills or the Chilterns but the view from the end of The Drive in Walthamstow that looks down along the Lea Valley. So at 7.30pm I set off.

I might not have made it as far as Chingford Road if I’d had the £20 in my pocket to take a boat out on the Hollow Ponds, full of families splashing about.

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The original George Monoux School dates from 1527. I bought a pamphlet about it in the Vestry House a while back but haven’t read it yet so that’s all the info I can pass on for now.

 

Immense views stretch out from the footbridge over the North Circular near the Crooked Billet Roundabout. The Holiday Inn Express in a weed-strewn lay-by had the forlorn look of a mid-west motel on the Lost Highway.

Where will they film the obligatory scene at the greyhound stadium that every mockney Gangster movie is required to have once they’ve converted ‘the Stow’ to housing? Lucky Blur stuck it on their Parklife album cover.

There’s a battle raging over the future of the track. ‘Save our Stow’ claim it as ‘the most historical greyhound track in the world’. I passed Catford Dogs on one of my walks for This Other London – also awaiting the same fate. London just has 3 of its original 33 dog tracks left.

I landed up at Chingford Mount as the sun was taking a dip in the Banbury Reservoir and jumped a 158 back to Leyton.


– the map above moves around if you click on the ‘play’ icon