Having read London Orbital you pick up Lights Out for the Territory feeling in some respects it is a dry run for that book. The key personnel with Iain Sinclair writer and marc Atkins photographer are the same but the story is earlier and the landscape different.
Where London orbital was clearly about the M25 this books focuses on a triangle starting up in Hackney and moving down and across through the East End before arriving at Greenwich and finally Charlton.
Sinclair describes the aim of the book as a walking diary of reactions to the graffiti and messages that locals have left on the walls and signs along the route. In a pyschogeoghraphical sense these words should be influenced by the environment around them.
You start expecting a series of semi offensive and profound messages being recorded but quickly Sinclair moves the focus away from just what can be seen on the streets to what has happened to them in the past. There is a particular focus on literary and cinematic references.
The book is full of names and locations that give it a dizzying sense of depth. It is almost headache inducing how many things he manages to cram in. Each event leads to another with connections spinning out of a location like bike spokes. If the point is to prove that under each flagstone there is a story worth telling in London that is well made.
The problem with it is that is feels dated. The Kray’s burial service was a long time ago and the area around the dome has changed significantly in the last few years. It was also easy to lose track of the narrative as Sinclair pushed everything he knew at you. That resulted in it being a difficult read in places and a narrative that didn’t really have a conclusion.
The writing takes an almost autobiographical turn as Sinclair starts to unravel the stories of some of those around him. As a result it becomes possible to start seeing how the environment of London impacts some of those that are perhaps more open towards its power.
So you get artists living in bunkers and performance artists collecting dust from old warehouses. These people are portrayed with a good mix of fondness and detachment. Sinclair doesn’t allow himself to always get dragged along with every passing fad but as a result of opening himself up to some of them he manages to meet some interesting writers and artists.
One of the points that you feel he is making, particularly with the artist in the bunker, is that while it is easier perhaps to concentrate on the large Henry Moore pieces that litter the landscape of the capital it is perhaps underground both literally and metahporically where just as much energy and interest lies.
Although this book in some respects is showing its age, an irony for something that is so good at charting history, what nails it to the 1990s is the pedestal that Jeffrey Archer is placed on.
Since his spell at her majesty’s pleasure and his virtual disappearance from the political scene it is hard to remember when Archer was able to provoke strong feelings.
In previous days I remember driving friends past his home in Granchester and putting my foot down as they took the opportunity of a slow turn past his gates to wind down the window and shout abuse. But that was when it felt like he could do something.
Now his name and the reaction of Sinclair to it make this book seem older than perhaps it would have been. There is a moment when Sinclair describes the potential meeting with Archer as pivotal to the whole Lights Out project. You wonder if he would say the same now.
What doesn’t stop is his ability to engage the reader’s interest. You don’t just have to be a Londoner, or living in the City, to appreciate the power and influence that the past can have on the present.
Lights Out for the Territory is not an easy read. That is not to say it’s difficult because of language and story. It is simply a challenge keeping up with the wealth of information and images coming at you.
As Sinclair takes the reader around the City and recollects the temples of Mithras and the imagery of bulls he takes you on a conveyor belt between the mid 1990s and the days of King Lud.
This is a journey through London’s history as much as a physical journey through its streets and avenues.
Sinclair is also playing the role of historian sharing his references as he charts his own memories. Both he and his companion photographer Marc Atkins become part of the story, are stitched into the fabric of London’s history and as the story unfolds they chart their own reactions to it.
More to come…
This book is so dense that you almost end up re-reading parts of it in order to consume all of the information. Sinclair is being fluid with time delving back into the past to show its influence on the present and throwing names of writers, film stars and directors as well as criminals all into the mix.
Nowhere is the mixture of time more in evidence than the funeral procession for one of the Kray twins. The old east end comes back to the 1950s and the touches requested at the funeral are harking back to a Victorian era even before that.
Sinclair is looking for the things that make an area and is prepared to highlight the negative. The chapter focusing on dogs and dishes is both funny and disturbing. He is prepared to wage a war with the pen against the pitbull and the satellite dish owner.
No one ever said that London was some sort of paradise on Earth and it’s good to see Sinclair prepared to wade in and show the underbelly of the capital.
Sinclair often makes references to JG Ballard and so it seemed like a logical jump to go from one writer talking about London to another. In Lights Out for the Territory Sinclair sets out the ambition of making nine journeys across the capital using graffiti and signs to chart the real feelings and mood of places he walks through.
This is a very similar idea to London Orbital where he walked round the M25 noting the asylums and the decaying communities made accessible by the road but at the same time over taken by the concrete and the exhaust fumes.
here he starts by setting off from his native Hackney with the intention of walking to Greenwich and then back again over the other side of the river to the M11.
He packs it full of information not just about what he can see now but also the links to the past. he is a mind of information and facts and figures that come out almost like a stream of consciousness. This is a tour not just of the streets but a world of booksellers, film makers and communities that have gone, but because Sinclair is here, not been forgotten.
more next week…