a sinclair A-Z: a is for archive (and austin)

When product arrives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center it goes into quarantine. They are humane in this well-endowed enclave of Austin, Texas … . They threw out a lifeline by purchasing what they call archive, otherwise known as skip-fillers. Manuscripts. Typescripts. Notebooks. Thin blue bundles tied with yellow twine. Correspondence. Forty years of scribble in eighty sacks and boxes: a still life writhing with invisible termites, micro-bugs, blisters on onion-skin paper. This material, stacked solid in a tin box in Whitechapel, was an insect ghetto, an unvisited Eden: until I became my own grand project and sold the memory-vault for the dollars to keep me afloat for another season. … But despite the madness, the Xanadu-acquisitiveness of this storage facility, like a selective catalogue of human culture preserved against the coming nuclear winter, the atmosphere is calm, temperate, clean. 

– Iain Sinclair, American Smoke, 2010

Iain Sinclair opens recent topographically concentrated book Hackney: That Rose Red Empire (2009) with an aphorism from James Ellroy: ‘Geography is destiny’. Sinclair’s 600 page treatise on how his East London base of Hackney has directly and indirectly influenced his corpus for the past 40 years substantiates Ellroy’s formula. Yet Sinclair’s axiomatic position as a ‘central’ figure in contemporary London writing, one doubtless consolidated by the publication of Hackney, is problematic. Despite his undeniable visibility within the field, Sinclair has exhibited ambivalence and even antipathy towards this role. A number of tropes familiar to Sinclair’s work—memory, residue, ruin, spectrality, surveillance—can be traced back to the tension between visible and occulted Londons that plays out in his writing.

This ambivalence might one way to frame the geographical dis/location of the Sinclair archive from London to a repository in Austin, Texas. Sinclair’s archive is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, an ostensibly perverse textual and geographical convergence that provokes perplexed reactions from Sinclair acolytes. The histories that existed prior to Austin’s settlement in the mid 19th century are oral and folkloric, linked to the land and the natural environment, yet the layers of asphalt and concrete that spread promiscuously across the contemporary landscape act as prophylactics against these psychogeographical forces. There are ruins here, but they too lack psychogeographical charge. They are the debris of mass consumption, dumpsters full of the stinking remains of yesterday’s fast food. Negotiating Austin by foot, even at the centre, is comparable to the perambulatory experience Sinclair recounted in London Orbital (2002). In downtown Austin, the pedestrian is as exotic and alienated as on the perimeter of London and keeps company with the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicts. Walking here is paranoia. It is, at once, to feel vulnerable, and to invite suspicion.
Unexpectedly, the spatial remoteness from London is replicated textually in the contents of the first accession which was shipped across the Atlantic in 2004. (Sinclair refers to it as the ‘paper-berg’ in a letter to Rick Gekoski, the rare book dealer who brokered the transaction.) In the letters and juvenilia from his years at boarding school in Cheltenham, Sinclair is referred to as ‘Maes’, an epithet derived from his hometown of Maesteg in Wales. Extended correspondence from Tom Baker, the screenwriter of the film Witchfinder General, and from writer Tony Lowes is addressed to multiple destinations in Dublin, to Wales, to the island of Gozo in Malta, and to the home of Sinclair’s mother-in-law in Rutland, Uppingham. In addition to the letters, there are numerous filmscripts, plays and poems that are unconnected to London. The city’s absence is not confined to the early period. Sinclair’s writing was firmly entrenched in London for the last half of the 70s, as well all of the 80s and the 90s, but from 2000 he spends successive years of narrative exile in Wales for Landor’s Tower (2001), past the M25 in London Orbital (2002), along the A13 and out to the Sussex coast in White Goods (2002) and Dining on Stones (2004), and in Essex for Edge of the Orison (2005). (Arguably, these texts are always about London in that they are conceived as escape from a London that has become colonized by the media, developers and the heritage industry.) City of Disappearances, a cabinet of textual curiosities collected by Sinclair in 2006 marked a return to the capital, yet it displayed his characteristic disdain for the visibility of the official culture based in London through its focus on what no longer existed. Sinclair has been saying for some time that ‘London is deluding itself if it thinks it can continue to dominate national consciousness: the centre is anywhere and everywhere.’(Lights out for the Territory, 1997)

The mass of non-London material dilutes the geo-textual disruption of the move to Austin. Moreover, as Sinclair has consistently pointed out, he is not a Londoner, yet this distinction is frequently subsumed by the far more potent discourse about Sinclair and London which has been willingly seized upon by the media and by readers. In Hackney Sinclair wearily admits to exploiting his reputation as a London expert by undertaking large amounts of what he calls ‘hack’ work to pay the bills. Selling off his papers comes under this heading. He writes,

I accepted any commission that related to Hackney: barber shops for a style magazine, off-message Olympic soothsaying, radio punditry from the Lower Lea Valley. I knocked out whither-London rhetoric for plausible Irish architects in the pay of American museums. … I peddled notebooks. I flogged boxes of manuscripts, letters from the dead, the druggy ephemera of countercultural exiles. (53)

Documentary evidence in the form of countless invoices, remittances, and letters chasing outstanding payment attests to the financial grind of being a writer. The Texans provided a lifeline. In The Verbals (2003), a series of conversations with Kevin Jackson, Jackson asks Sinclair about whether he has preserved his early writings from film school. Sinclair replies, ‘Well, I can’t remember chucking them out. I’ve got this lock-up in Whitechapel which is just packed…a compacted block, and all that stuff is in there somewhere, whatever survives of it I don’t know. Cans of film, too…’ Jackson continues: ‘Will you be flogging it to Austin, Texas?’ to which Sinclair says, ‘I’d love to. That’s the dream, that one day some one will come, take the whole lot away, and hand over the money.’ (30) In another electronic mail to a contributor to City of Disappearances, Sinclair remarks flippantly: ‘Sorry this is only an email – already filed your real letter toward my Texas archive pension.’ The email makes into the archive as well as the letter. Indeed that aforementioned early film school material also turns up, keeping company with the documents of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound. A 2007 New Yorker article about the Harry Ransom Centre, somewhat ominously titled ‘Final Destination’, investigated the question: ‘Why do the archives of so many great writers end up in Texas?’ Sinclair would not have been ignorant to the cultural capital derived from sending his remainders to Austin.

There is a local connection in Austin too. Writer and friend Michael Moorcock is a resident of neighbouring Bastrop. The Moorcock correspondence cluttering Sinclair’s archive is anarchic. His mystifying packages are eclectic, incorporating ‘Moorcockiana’ (as Sinclair calls it) of a Texan flavour (a brochure for Cooper’s Old-Time Pit Barbecue, a cutting from the local Bastrop rag), comic strips, drafts of reviews he has written, printouts from the internet. In a short piece of prose in Saddling the Rabbit, Sinclair comments on the awesome scale of the archival middens discovered by Moorcock’s fraught bibliographist at the Bodleian. The library, after making the initial speculative investment

 had to put a block on Moorcock ephemera, a landfill of manuscripts and correspondence that threatened to bury Oxford. No more packing cases, please, from Lost Pines, Texas. The libraries admit now, they made a mistake, taking a punt on New Wave sf. They should have limited themselves to Ballard. No carbons, no multiples with different titles. (2002: 30)

 Moorcock helpfully provides a commentary on the London–Texas axis. In an email to Sinclair (30 October 2006) he writes about ‘Someone doing a thesis asking me the difference between London and Texas. Has me stumped.’ Other emails from Bastrop point out the fallow financial ground at acquisitive Texan universities, keen to get their hands on cultural capital.

The dis/location of Sinclair’s remainders to Texas clearly has financial determinants, but structurally speaking, Sinclair’s urge to re-incorporate his textual refuse into the literary-academic complex is not out of character. He prints on both sides, a line struck through the superseded side of the recycled page. Is he eco-minded? Or is it motivated by the parsimonious virtue of the Protestant mercantile class? (Georges Bataille in ‘The Notion of Expenditure’: ‘The hatred of expenditure is the raison d’être of and the justification for the bourgeoisie’.) Sinclair’s long-time collaborator and friend Chris Petit notes a tendency towards the latter. ‘London is, and always has been, a great clearing house. Its business has always been import and export. I’ve always thought of Iain Sinclair as someone who works in that mercantile tradition: but instead of bales of cotton it’s these big boxes of ideas that he’s shifting around.’ Manuscripts confirm that Sinclair is adept at reusing off-cuts: a provisionally titled project The Perimeter Fence eventually becomes the film Asylum in 2000, which is then absorbed into a 2002 book White Goods, which by 2004 morphs into the novel Dining on Stones. It is literature as a textual waste management scheme, an extension of Sinclair’s literary recycling projects, which were described by Patrick Wright in Journey Through Ruins (1991) as ‘experiments to see how far a literary reputation can be made from a heap of valueless old books.’ (38)

In the archive, I find a letter to J. G. Ballard dated 30 October 2003 where Sinclair narrates a scene reminiscent of his own fictions:

Dear Jimmy,

Just a quick note before I vanish for another day into my Whitechapel lock-up (with a spectacular crew of petty villains stacking and unstacking contraband in and out of tin units, black bags into white vans), another day of listing dead papers for a potential … sale to a Texas University.

The ‘contraband’ is notorious amongst the archivists at the Ransom Centre for arriving as a chaos of documents, dust, mould and desiccated insects. In photographs presented to me the cartons are split, spilling over, as incontinent as Sinclair’s writing can sometimes appear. The collection is still very raw, untouched by other academic investigators. None of the usual mediatory research technology is applicable. An inventory exists only in hard copy, a taxonomy of vague categories such as ‘large packet of letters’ or ‘ephemera.’ The inventory is one link in a concatenation of unreliable texts: it does not match what is written on the exterior of the boxes; in turn, the text on the outside of the box does not match the contents. Every box is a lucky dip; it could offer up treasure, or trash.

There is an absent-minded elegance to this methodology, even though the elusive nature of the archive has frustrated my scholarly ambitions. The proposal I have submitted in order to gain access situates Sinclair as a lynch-pin between British and American neo-Modernisms, but targeted research proves impossible. Unlike many scholars who come to the Harry Ransom Center to cast their gimlet eye over the detritus of their object of study, I have no idea what I am going to find. Contrary to our acculturated preconceptions about order, Carolyn Steedman observes that this is the actual condition of the archive.

The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there. […] It is indexed, and catalogued, and some of it is not indexed and catalogued, and some of it is lost. … In the Archive, you cannot be shocked at its exclusions, its emptinesses, at what is not catalogued, at what was – so the returned call-slip tells you – ‘destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War’ … . (2001, 68)

What I do uncover is frequently prosaic. The everyday creeps in through artefacts like plastic bags: Waitrose, W. H. Smith, Ryman the stationer. Prophetic scrawl is contained in an inauspicious red exercise book with black lettering on its cover:

Silvine Exercise Book.

Name and Subject.

There are lists – or is it poetry? – on secondhand brown envelopes. The ink of the final draft typescript of Edge of the Orison runs in imperfect circles where a glass has been carelessly left. On a grey day I look out through the arrow loops of the fortified Harry Ransom, and across Guadelupe to 21 Rio, a Brutalist building for which the British would be proud, and conclude that the archive is simultaneously mythopoeic and demystifying, hieratical and mundane.

A Sinclair poem from 1988 keeps returning to me: ‘Significant Wreckage’. The title sounds like an apt description of the archive. Its opening line reads ‘Words writing in a heat that slides them from the icing page.’ This could describe the process of re-animating the once-warm word-corpse from the cold mortuary slab of the archival box. The Conrad scholar from White Goods (2002) and Dining on Stones (2004) also haunts me. Sinclair’s academic doubles as vampire, obsessively pursuing her quarry and/or object of study.

First, she had learnt Polish. Then she tracked down the letters and initiated the slow, painstaking, much-revised process of translation. She travelled. Validated herself. Being alone in an unknown city, visiting libraries, enduring and enjoying bureaucratic obfuscation, sitting in bars, going to the cinema, allowed her to try on a new identity. She initiated correspondence with people she never met. She lied. She stole from Conrad. (2002: 58)

The woman leeches her identity from the work of Conrad. It is unethical academic practice: sucking the energy from the corpse, the corpus of the dead writer, a necrophiliac engagement with the residue, the textual refuse of Conrad.

Often the subtext of Sinclair’s repeated focus on regulatory surveillance is the scrutiny afforded the city by writers and other creative practitioners. In a short fiction from 2000 titled ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’, the journalist Norton complains about the appropriation of London’s previously occulted histories, whilst realizing his own complicity in exposing them:

Norton blamed himself. He couldn’t keep schtum, didn’t know when to leave well alone. He had to worry at, tease out, secrets that were better left untold: vanishing caretakers, patterns of malign energy that linked eighteenth-century churches, labyrinths, temples, plague pits. Now they were too loudly on the map, or trashed by attention. All he ever wanted was to write himself out, to fade into the masonry, become one of the revenants someone else would track. (162)

Like Norton, his occasional textual doppelgänger, Sinclair is an obscurantist, preferring to milk sources that exist outside any official or visible economy of knowledge. As Moorcock says in the introduction to the 1998 re-issue of Lud Heat ‘Sinclair drags from London’s amniotic silt the trove of centuries and presents it to us, still dripping, still stinking, still caked and frequently still defiantly kicking.’ (3) This predilection for the chthonic is a resistance to the Londons whose histories have been brought to light by the heritage industry.

Robert Macfarlane discerns Sinclair’s textual dilemma in 1997’s Lights Out for the Territory.

The book’s intent—as far as it is possible to extract anything so forthright …—was to reclaim London’s history from its sanctioned, official custodians (the Government, the heritage industry, the developers) and return it to those Sinclair saw as its true curators: a gaggle of mystics, visionaries, writers, collectors, filmmakers and poets, all the lost and the ‘reforgotten’ keepers of a city’s pasts. (2005)

On the one hand, his work has attributed cultural value to previously neglected precincts and characters in London by the very virtue of writing about them. On the other hand, that value is contingent on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible when Sinclair’s writing moves into the mainstream. Illumination and surveillance equal commodification in this equation, and areas that are rich in alternative energies dry up once captured by writers, and then the heritage industry. Norton experiences this disillusionment: ‘If he’d had a camera, he would have left it in the bag. London was a book with no surprises. It knew itself too well. When self-consciousness turns into art, art into fashion, fashion into property, it’s time to pull the plug.’ (2000: 167)

Patrick Wright, who explicitly links the rise of London studies to social and economic forces associated with the political metastasis of the dismantled welfare state, and to the consequent spatial re-organisation of London, was already commenting upon Sinclair’s relationship with these developments in 1991. The self-reflexive critique in stories like ‘The Rothenstein Tomb’ contains Sinclair’s anxiety about his implication in the heritage industry. Norton’s lament when he turns up four years later in the novel Dining on Stones (2004) could be Sinclair’s.

‘Standard riffs,’ I snorted. I’d used them myself, more than once. The problem, at my age, is that every statement sounds like an echo of something written or read. The worst of it, for journalists who stick around too long, is that we self-plagiarise to the point of erasure, quote our own quotes, promote new talent, buried for years in Kensal Green or Nunhead. The madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses. No brick that has not been touched, mentioned in a book.   (100)

In the archive it strikes me the scholar’s prurient urge to sift through a writer’s textual refuse is an ironically under-examined mode of textual surveillance. As I pick through the papers it is difficult to rid myself of the implications of my actions, even more so when I come across a letter referring to a conference at which I presented. In a 2004 letter Sinclair recounts to Kevin Jackson, ‘I ran into Amanda … at the recent City Visions conference in Greenwich. (Marxist/Modernist interpretations of everything that isn’t in my dead books.)’ The project of examining the leftovers of a prodigious archivist becomes a meta-commentary on Sinclair’s own practice and philosophy of reading London, and his reservations about the project. Given Sinclair’s desire for refuge from the avaricious eye of the culture industries, perhaps the dis/location of his papers from a Whitechapel lock-up to the air-conditioned, relative anonymity of Austin is not so perverse after all.

My research at the Sinclair archive was made possible by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.


Author: Kirsten Seale

I am a Sydney based researcher and academic, and the author of numerous articles on cities, urban culture, and place. I am the co-editor of Informal Urban Street Markets (Routledge, 2014) and the author of the forthcoming Markets, Places, Cities (Routledge, 2016). This is my research blog.

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