Iain Sinclair and British psychogeography

Iain Sinclair, whose name has become synonymous with ‘psychogeography’ has, in recent years, done his best to distance himself from the term. In a 2016 interview, he brushed off the question of psychogeography:

I don’t think there is any more than can be said. The topic has outlived its usefulness and become a brand.

But even in 2004 he was worried that he was marketed under the “brand image as the London psychogeographer.” He continued,

For me, [psychogeography is] a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I’m just exploiting it because I think it’s a canny way to write about London. Now it’s become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There’s this awful sense that you’ve created a monster.

How did we get here?

Iain Sinclair in London Fields, circa 2012.

Sinclair was familiar with the Situationists in the 1960s, but he does not share their revolutionary intent. He keeps an ironic distance from the leftist political moments and figures that he documents. He does share, however, the Situationists’ passion for negation, and it can be argued that his writing matured in opposition to Thatcherism, and the subsequent transformation of the public sphere in the mould of Blairite managerialism.

In his approach to walking the city, Sinclair does not replicate the Situationist dérive, but he does share the impulse to discover a city in opposition to authority. In 2002, he described his method with reference to Louis Aragon and Arthur Machen, and, with regard to his use of ‘psychogeography’. he said:

It was much less philosophically subtle than some of the previous attempts, more of a raging bull journey against the energies of the city.

Tauroctony (bull-slaying) statue from the Temple of Mithras. Relief sculpture, 3rd century. Museum of London.

In Lights Out for the Territory (1997), Sinclair relates ‘psychogeography’ to the occult significance of the discovery of the Temple of Mithras in the City of London:

The act – Mithras cutting the bull’s throat – as depicted on the votive tablet discovered near Bond Court in 1889 is one of the crucial icons in any understanding of the psychogeography of the City. The figures of the god and the bull form a triangle within the framing circle of astrological symbols. Mithras, in his characteristic curved cap, turns away from the animal, cutting the throat from behind with a right-handed stroke. Light, in the form of blood, will gush from the wound. And the point, where the blade touches the throat, will be a sacred site in the mapping of London.

Lights Out 115-116

The unveiling of occult significance is a central component of Sinclair’s early writing about London. No more is this true than in Lud Heat (1975), which gathered together a dizzying array of associations, linked by his mapping of Hawksmoor churches.

Brian Catling, map from Lud Heat (1975)

Sinclair relates Hawksmoor’s designs to Egyptian iconography, taking descriptions from Herodotus; he adds to these M. R. James’s commentary on ‘the lost pyramids of Glastonbury that flanked the burial place of Arthur, that mythologist’s bottomless pit.’ (Lud Heat, p. 34 [Vintage edition, 1995]). This is psychogeography as an intensely personal mythology of the city — as idiosyncratic as Blake’s mythology (which is also referenced in Lud Heat). Sinclair’s writing records all the crazed ideas and associations which spark from his observation of London, opening a portal into a new vision of the city.

Christ Church Spitalfields (date of photograph unknown)

Sinclair’s literary profile grew following his novels White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1991), finally merging with the zeitgeist around the turn of the century. Between Lights Out For the Territory (1997) and London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2002), Sinclair honed his style of writing about walking as a means of uncovering the hidden, uncanny traces of lives, stories, and histories that were at risk of being forgotten by an increasingly gentrified city. And as part of a constellation of re-mythologisations of London, such as Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999) and Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2000), Sinclair became the reluctant high priest of a publishing phenomenon which seemingly knows no end.

In Sinclair’s The Last London (2017), the term ‘psychogeography’ reappears, but it has become derisive:

The last London is a lost London, a city of fracture and disappearance. I set out early one morning, with notebook and pocket camera, to map the emerging favela of huts. I mean those secret places — riverside shacks, containers, empty packing cases — where urban explorer collectives have established their hides. Two things became clear very quickly. There were many more of these altemative free-Airbnb accommodations than I’d previously suspected. And they weren’t all operated by Bradley L Garrett and his crew. The germ of the idea was out there now and it was spreading fast, facilitated by technologies I scorned or misunderstood: fractal worlds beyond the reach of my Nokia duncephone.

My crudely assembled chart, very much like the one I produced, many years ago, for the alignment of Hawksmoor churches, was outflanked before it began. All this stuff was already available on YouTube and a dozen apps. Streamed with ads for Santander bikes, MYRUN TECHNOGYM (the intelligent home treadmill) and WALK LONDON MAYFAIR VELVET STUDDED LOAFERS. I spotted one cod-psychogeographical plan of Hackney, contrived from mystical pentagrams and triangles, emblazoned on the rear flank of a silver hire car, right over the petrol-flap.

The Last London, 164.

Sinclair is witness to the repackaging of his own technique: a victim of his success. Just as the Situationists aspired to resist the possibility of recuperation by the spectacle, Sinclair discovers that everything can be co-opted. He records a graffito:

THE ALBION SAILS ON COURSE. Black script on white wall. The spill-zone around Corbridge Crescent, the painted devil heads and hybrid monsters, the bare-breasted pin-ups from naughtier times mouthing Situationist slogans, are captured and made fit for purpose by film crews and television set-dressers, lighting technicians and catering caravans, responding to dissent as: exploitable edge.

The Last London, 293-94


Suggested links:

2 thoughts on “Iain Sinclair and British psychogeography”

  1. Pingback: Uncanny cities

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s