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 at Wapping

Iain Sinclair Wapping John Rogers

Another great day filming with Iain Sinclair yesterday for the London Overground film. We wandered from Shadwell down to the Thames at Wapping taking the Old Stairs onto the Thames foreshore where Iain read an extract from his book Downriver.

You can see Iain talk about London Overground at the Transport Museum on Wednesday 20th Jan where we’ll also screen a short selection of footage from the film.

Old Stairs of the Thames at Wapping and Shadwell

shadwell stairs

Onto the No.339 bus down to Shadwell in search of the locations of a series of old photos in Wonderful London (circa 1926) of two sets of the old Watermen’s Stairs on the Thames. This beguiling picture above is of the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs. The caption reads: “.. an ancient and much used landing place and point of departure of a ferry. There is a tradition that Sir Martin Frobisher took boat here for his ship when starting on his voyage to find the North-West Passage.”

ratcliffe cross stairs

Ratcliffe Cross Stairs

This is the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs today (or at least that is what I’ve deduced from old maps and descriptions of the location, at the junction of Broad Street, Shadwell and Narrow Street, Limehouse) protruding out from the bottom of a block of flats as the lunchtime City joggers pound across the wooden bridge above. The Watermen of the 21st Century cruising past in their City Clipper tour boats.

shadwell stairs

Wonderful London also offers this view of the Thames from the muddy foreshore at Shadwell at Low Tide looking eastwards.

IMG_3837-View from Shadwell

No barges marooned on the shore the day I was there – the Towers of Mammon rising around the river bend on the Isle of Dogs.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs Prospect of Whitby

Pelican Stairs

Running down from the historic Prospect of Whitby pub (dating from 1520) are the Pelican Stairs, where on the shore some wag has erected a noose in honour of the ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries who was a regular at the Prospect.

King Henry's Stairs Wapping

King Henry’s Stairs

Heading West along Wapping High Street you encounter King Henry’s Stairs. Although these historic riverside rights of way have been preserved, some have been allowed to slowly decay.

wapping old stairs

Wonderful London describes Wapping Old Stairs as “one of liveliest spots in the country” in the great days of the maritime Thames.

Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs today

“but the swaggering sailormen and the loathly crew of bullies and harridans who prey on these Jack Juncks and Bill Bobstays during their few days ashore have, happily, gone as completely as the foul dens that harboured them” – Wonderful London

Wapping Old Stairs video with the sound of the Thames lapping against the stone steps