The World’s End – walking with Iain Sinclair through Tilbury

‘The Jungle began in London’

The second chapter of Iain Sinclair’s The Gold Machine opens with that line, ‘The jungle began in London’. This reflection comes beside a ‘fast-flowing’ brown river in Peru, following the footsteps of a journey made by his great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. ‘This Peruvian expedition had been an unspoken requirement most of my working life’, he writes. And in 2019 he finally made the journey with his daughter Farne and the filmmaker Grant Gee. But why had we come out to Tilbury to pick up the threads for this video?

The answers were littered along the walk we took from Tilbury Town to East Tilbury – from the Docks to Bataville. Stood outside a derelict boarded up guest house as Saturday traffic whizzed past, Iain looked up at the attic windows and explained:
“It’s very easy for me to imagine Joseph Conrad as a merchant mariner coming ashore in Tilbury and lodging there and looking out of this particular dirty pane of glass and dreaming the entire story of everything I’ve written ever since, or whispering in my ear and pushing me to write it, because the beginning the middle and the end of everything I’ve ever written begins in Dock Road Tilbury and it essentially begins with this building the wonderfully named Rourke’s Drift Guest House … those windows upstairs, just the faces are at the window. And I mean that’s it for me, this is where the ghost started to come through and push everything that follows.”

Iain Sinclair Downriver

We had not just gone in search of the origins of a journey to Peru, but the creation myth of Iain’s life of writing the hidden stories of London into existence. Once articulated, you realise Arthur Sinclair’s 19th Century travels as a planter to the tropics, are threaded through Iain Sinclair’s books, the tendrils from the jungle wrapped around the streets of East London and back down the Thames Estuary and out to sea.

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair

We stood on the wharf watching the passenger ferry pull out across the Thames for Gravesend. The sky so wide looking eastwards to the North Kent Marshes, and Iain talked of his great-grandfather’s first departure from this very spot bound of Ceylon. But also of Joseph Conrad’s Thames voyages and his own departure to the jungles of the Congo that became the basis of Heart of Darkness. A journey that also started at Tilbury. There were so many overlapping narratives that washed up along the foreshore as we walked. We wound up looking for the modernist espresso bar designed by architect Bronek Katz as a hub for the Bata Factory workers at East Tilbury, now butchered and blackened and operating as a kebak and burger joint called, Essex Kitchen. We never made it as far as Joseph Conrad’s house at Stanford-le-Hope, the best walks always act as preludes to future schleps. ‘The walk is the walk’, Iain said, whatever it contains is the narrative.


  1. Spencer dell   •  

    John,as always we looked forward to your walk yesterday and wasn’t disappointed. Great to see you and Iain champion social housing or the lack of it.
    Sticks a little in our throat though as we live in the private rental sector, I’m employed as a road digger and my wife is a carer. Not even allowed to be on the list as we are told we earn too much.
    Then we see that iain not only has a house in Hackney but also a holiday home in West Sussex.
    If I’m wrong I apologise but is it do as I say not as I do?

  2. tony   •  

    My grandfather moved from the north for a job at Bata, which of course included a house. Eventually moving on to a council house in Tilbury itself. The fact that a family could do that in 1933 without mortgaging itself to the hilt or without years of housing apprenticeship in a sink estate or via subsidising some buy to let lecherous landlord tells you a lot about the last forty years. Romanticise, it’s interesting to do so, but life in Tilbury is not great.

  3. christine slike   •  

    Amazing walk! I loved the history but Ian Sinclair is way about my intelligence pay grade!

  4. Tony   •  

    An interesting aspect of the history of Bata is the report that the factory was set up after a plea from a local clergyman! Can that be true? Could a plea from a vicar result in a business tycoon deciding to set up business in a town? I have read the comment on a few sources but I haven’t been able to find out more. On a more depressing note when I was reading up on Bata I leant that vandals burnt down a local centre for the study of the place. For every lover of public space there is always some other trying to destroy something for no apparent reason.

  5. Peter Marshall   •  

    Reminded me of my walk along the same route in 2004, though I took my Brompton and cycled back by road to Tilbury from East Tilbury. I first went to Tilbury on the ferry from Gravesend back in the 1980s, but only walked as far as the power station and then back to Tilbury to catch the train. A group I was involved with had been invited to set up a social project there, but it never happened as we couldn’t fine people to volunteer to go there.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.