Bringing Iain Sinclair’s book of poems, ‘Buried at Sea’, into work this morning made me think about the impact his selected poems ‘Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal’, and his novel ‘White Chappell Scarlet Tracings’, made on me when I first read them.
I was at a very conservative boarding school in Dorset; every so often Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ would get dusted off by some corduroy jacketed English teacher as an example of the finest, most dangerous poetry that modern Britain had to offer; appreciation of the contemporary novel stopped at Ford Madox Ford.
After Hughes’ tepid, self regarding, bankrupt Romanticism – a poetry that had and still has all the allure of a fly-blown egg salad sandwich rotting in an over warm chiller unit in a barely used Little Chef just off the A303 – and FMF’s (admittedly excellent, but simultaneously) seventy years gone Modernist novelising, Iain Sinclair was a revelation.
I’ve come to read his work as a driven Cockney response to writers like Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; people obsessed with the way history and geography combine to create an environment that the self cannot but rely on for definition.
He built on their methodologies, marrying berserk pulp mythologies with the seedier scrag ends of the Matter of London to look at how popular culture and mythology shape us.
London becomes a dense palimpsest of experience, a place where figures as diverse as Jack the Ripper, Stephen Hawking, Mithras and Nicholas Hawksmoor create intertwining narratives that echo in an absolutely contemporary way through the lives of all Londoners.
Within it we are are perpetual slaves to our environment, unknowing flaneurs being perpetually remoulded by the city that we are always strolling through, always observing, always being observed by.
There’s an obvious political edge to this, as well; those with the power to shape the environment have the power to shape us. Picking up where the Situationalists left off, riffing off the pulp innocence of H. P. Lovecraft and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, Sinclair forces us to beware of such designs.
Iain Sinclair was using fictions I was deeply engaged with to build an argument about the nature of place, memory (both personal and cultural) that I found very exciting and relevant. Set against Ted Hughes and his dustily savage nature poetry – what took him a career to achieve was done better by Tennyson in four lines in 1849 – there was no real competition.