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Posts from the ‘Iain Sinclair’ Category

Farrago at Test Centre

American Smoke launch

Iain Sinclair with the jacket for his new book American Smoke.

London’s Test Centre has just announced a month of activities that I’d dearly love to see if only I were in London.  Test Centre, just to remind everybody, is a publisher and art event organization that recently published Iain Sinclair’s excellent little book Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, which I wrote about in April.  Now, it seems that they’ve snagged the first month of the new art space simply known as F (located in a former Sea Cadets building in Stoke Newington) to house a series of events and a pop-up shop curated by Sinclair, Chris Petit, Stewart Home, and others.  There’s no point in my even attempting to summarize the farrago of activities, so I’ll just steal a bit of the text from Test Centre’s website (but do check out the website as there is much more that I didn’t swipe):

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Several Clouds Colliding

Several Clouds

Following the pair of posts called Railroad Conversations, I thought I might follow on with yet one more book that originated as a public performance, though this book moves away from the subject of railways and deals instead with the life and archive of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Published in 2012 by the Swedenborg Archive and Book Works as part of a series, Several Clouds Colliding by Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair is a handsome book that constitutes “part research document, part lecture transcript and part archive intervention” for an exhibition and performance by Catling and Sinclair in 2010. Read more

If Streets Are Sentences

 In one of my favorite stories by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator impulsively singles out an elderly gentleman and determines to follow him wherever he goes (sounds like the premise for an art piece by Sophie Calle, doesn’t it?).  For most of the next two days and two nights, the old man leads the narrator on an erratic, exhausting excursion through the city of London, taking a meandering path through the high and low neighborhoods of London with no  apparent pattern or goal.  The way in which Poe’s narrator allows an arbitrary character to determine his path through the city can probably be seen as a precursor of the Situationists and their determination to impose similarly arbitrary ways of negotiating urban spaces in what has come to be called psychogeography.  For me, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2004) is something of a classic in this genre.  Sinclair follows the highway that encircles London regardless of where it takes him, creating a travelogue of forgotten urban corners and what Rem Koolhaas calls “junkspace.”  I’ve just finished two brief, quirky books that take this tradition into slightly new directions.  Both of these books parse modern urban spaces through elliptical narratives that are an unlikely combination of keen observation, untethered imagination, insider’s knowledge, esoteric erudition, and photographs.


Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12 (London: CB Editions, 2011) employs an encyclopedia of micro-entries to convey the range of urban life found in the W12 postal code, an arbitrary zone laid over an historic area of London that includes Shepherd’s Bush and Wormwood Scrubs.  Using a comical system of alphabetically-ordered hyper-brief entries beginning with “ABC,” “A&E,” “Allotment” and ending with “Yawn,” “Yoga Advertisement,” and “Z,” Robinson gives an insider’a view of his neighborhood. Each entry is accompanied by a tiny, well-composed photograph, reinforcing a kind of modesty on the whole project.  In both the texts and the dead-pan images (presumably by the author) Robinson remains a calm and bemused observer, unruffled by the urban dilemmas that plague him and his neighbors, casting a forgiving eye on all the flaws and shortcomings of his neighborhood and his fellow residents.  He’s also prone to dropping references to literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Dinesen, Durrell, Eliot, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others (check out the handy index to see all of the heady “topics” addressed in Days and Nights in W12).  But lest we take all of this too seriously, Robinson warns us at the outset that he can’t vouch for all the tales that that are included.  “Do you need evidence before you decide” what to believe or not believe, he asks?  One day, when the taxi in which he is riding blows a tire on the way to Heathrow airport, he and his Somali driver “sit for a while in silence, smoking [while] gazelle and hartebeest come down the the water to drink.”

W12 1

W12 2

It seems to be something of an open secret in Great Britain that Jack Robinson is a pseudonym for Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions.  Days and Nights in W12 is an expanded version of  an earlier 2009 book by “Robinson” called Recessional, part of which may be seen here. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of the earlier title for sale anywhere on this planet.


Erik Anderson takes a different approach to the urban environment by literally inscribing letters on the map of Denver as he takes eight carefully orchestrated walks that spell out the letters P A S T O R A L in his recent book The Poetics of Trespass (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010).  As Anderson moves methodically through Denver, following paths that will trace the shape of each letter on the streets and open spaces of the city, the temporal part of the walk is dedicated to meditating, questioning, and stirring together dissimilar disciplines – like poetics and urban planning – in a kind of mental trespass.  “The city, like the poem, consists of a tension: how we move in it and how it moves in us.”  Anderson is interested in the problem of words and the interplay between words and sound and meaning.

I carved a large “P” into a medium-sized American city today.  It was an attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space, one in which, due to the billboards, liquor stores, gas stations and theater, temples, churches and restaurants, strip clubs, bus stops, and the Planned Parenthood office, any possibility of tracing a curve with one’s steps has been rigorous and systematically thwarted.

Like Robinson, Anderson also places small, self-made photographs throughout his text.  His images feel less like documents than questions.  The most interesting ones deal with the spatial puzzlement that arises in unplanned urban spaces and the odd juxtaposition of urban architectures.  I’m not doing Anderson’s richly allusive and elusive book justice with this brief post, but there  is an excerpt online, which includes several of the photographs (although the photographs in the book are reproduced in black-and-white).  Tacked on after the end of the essay “The Poetics of Trespass” is another shorter essay called “The Neighbor,” on Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stunning film In the Mood for Love (2001).  Here, Anderson plays with themes such as displacement, loss, and the nature of film.

trespass image

Waiting for the Trapdoor of Memory: Iain Sinclair on Sebald


“This material,” the back page explains, “in an earlier form, was part of the first draft of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, a book due to be published in November 2013.  It was decided, as the text moved through later stages in the editing process, that a London detour might be confusing.  Now it stands alone.”  That excerpt, Iain Sinclair’s Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, has just been released as a chapbook that packs a real punch for its mere 28-pages.

This being Iain Sinclair, the reader should not be surprised to find that the Sebald pages are framed by a narrative of murder and dismemberment.  During a morning walk in Hackney, Sinclair happened upon the crime scene where parts of the body of soap opera actress Gemma McCluskie had surfaced in the brown sludge of Regent’s Canal.  The crime scene becomes a site of tribute and remembrance, “making murder into a soap-opera tragedy.”

Wreaths, flowers, bears, cards appear, overnight, woven into the fence, above the lock where the torso was found.  Yellows and purples.  Deep reds and pinks.  Carnations, tulips, lilies.  In funnels of cellophane and twists of green paper.

This tawdry story (she was murdered by her brother) helps displace Sebald from the East Anglian landscape where he lived and with which he has become inextricably identified, for Sinclair’s elegiac, almost tender, narrative is largely a tale of Sebald in urban London.  It also serves as a contrast for the way in which Sinclair wants to memorialize Sebald.  As Sinclair tracks Sebald through the neighborhoods of London, sometimes accompanied by the poet Stephen Watts, he writes about places that Sebald researched and wrote about in Austerlitz.  Sinclair and Watts visit places like Liverpool Station and the Jewish burial ground in Brady Street that Sebald would have seen as his Norwich train approached Liverpool Street.  Watts recalls stories of Sebald’s rucksack (which became Austerlitz’s rucksack) and of Sebald trawling through shoeboxes of old postcards in Spitalfields Market.  Sinclair wants to unravel the “quiet cult of managed melancholy” that has been building up around Sebald’s legend, and so he gives us a Sebald who is flawed, worried, curious, determined, ill.

I wondered if Sebald ever wrote about driving.  The published books present a man most comfortable with a scenario of waiting: station hotels, Swiss lakes, distant views of snow-capped mountains, flights into northern cities, walks through marches on sandy paths.  Waiting for that single justifying encounter: the trapdoor of memory, the skewed quotation.  the echo of a translated text.

Perhaps it takes someone as eclectic as Sinclair (whose website describes him as “a british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist”) to give us a glimpse of a Sebald who seems, momentarily, at least, whole.

[Note added April 20, 2013: In a most curious coincidence, the day after I originally posted this, The Guardian published an essay by James Woods in which Sinclair says: “I only set eyes on Max Sebald one time. We shared a descending lift in Broadcasting House, pressed back into our safe corners, silent. He impersonated what I took him to be – writer, walker, culturally burdened European – so beautifully that I wondered if this was an actor, a hireling.”  This is not the impression Sinclair leaves in Austerlitz & After, where he is more coy about his actual relationship with Sebald.  Sinclair rather seamlessly blends Watts recollections into his own narrative, leaving it less than clear who actually spent time with Sebald.]

Austerlitz & After is a publication of Test Centre in London.  It was beautifully produced in a limited edition of 300 copies.  Twenty-six copies (all now sold) were specially bound in buckram covers.  Here is a view of the “extra holographic material” added to the copy which I managed to purchase.