a sinclair A-Z: g is for ghosts

  • An occasional series on the work of Iain Sinclair
    rodinskyThe book Rodinsky’s Room (1999) is a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and British writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein. By focusing on Sinclair, it is not my intention to marginalise Lichtenstein’s contribution to the book and to he project behind it. Rather, I am using Sinclair’s treatment of David Rodinsky and his room as a way of assessing Sinclair’s larger, ongoing project on spectral London.

 David Rodinsky, a member of London’s East End Jewish community, left his lodgings above the synagogue in Princelet Street, Spitalfields in 1967 and never returned. His room was discovered, untouched since his disappearance, more than a decade later. As motif, Rodinsky’s room travels throughout Sinclair’s work, and the book with Lichtenstein marks the apotheosis of an enduring fascination that began, in written form at least, with an article in the Guardian in the late 1980s. This article was later re-written as fiction to as a chapter in the novel Downriver (1991). Sinclair then turned the Rodinsky story back into non-fiction with references in Liquid City (1999), and in two dedicated volumes: the joint work with Lichtenstein, and a shorter small-press non-fiction Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A-Z (1999) which reimagines Rodinsky as a psychogeographer. Pieces of these numerous textual Rodinskys re-appear in a short story, ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ (2000), in the non-fiction London Orbital (2002), and in the novel Dining on Stones (2004). Sinclair’s edited volume City of Disappearances (2006) shares the Rodinsky book’s approach to historiography, and even though its remit is far wider can thus be viewed as connected to the body of work on Rodinsky.

At its heart, Rodinsky’s Room is a ghost story (with elements of the detective genre) that is intimately connected with the social, cultural, and spatial history of the Jewish East End. Sinclair’s preoccupation with the spectral has not gone unnoticed, with critic Ian Penman (2001) noting, ‘Sinclair writes ghost stories, of a sort: whatever his subject, there is always a low, persistent note of something mourned, spectral, lost.’ I’m not so interested in the tropes of the spectral in Sinclair’s writing.  I want, instead, to suggest that Sinclair’s deployment of the spectral —and I am including references to the occult within the category of the spectral—has a number of objectives.

The first is to conjure Londons that no longer exist: for instance, the counter-cultural London depicted in this photograph from 1990 by Sinclair long-time collaborator Marc Atkins.

Marc Atkins (1999)

In Liquid City, a collection of vignettes recalling vanished Londons , Sinclair describes this moment captured by Atkins in terms of the spectral.

The survivors gathered outside this pub, with its murky history, for the group shot. […] None of the other hacks turned up. The event was off-piste. A ghost circus. […] The line-up looks like a who’s-next-for-the-grim-reaper? competition. […] The night is inky. The Carpenters Arms (no nonsense about apostrophes) has detached itself from London and is floating across the glacial rim of deep space. A chorus of lightly fleshed skeletons take their bow.

Secondly, the immaterialism, or even anti-materialism of spectral presences like those in the photo provide Sinclair with the means to evade the spatial and temporal axioms that regulate contemporary London. Sinclair’s mobilisation of the spectral is, according to Roger Luckhurst, linked to the ‘historical avant-garde’s interest in the occult as a mode of resisting instrumental reason and the tyranny of planned space.’ Jacques Derrida writes of the spectral as this non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge’ (1994, p.6). In the context of Sinclair’s writing, we might read ‘knowledge’ here as neo-liberal modes of knowing the city.

The third is that through bringing the past into the present, spectrality creates anachrony. Derrida, taking his cue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tells us in his theory of the hauntological that the spectral is time out of joint. It is an absence that is present, in both the material and temporal sense of the word.

In his debut novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987)which is set in a fictionalised Spitalfields, the area of London where Rodinsky’s room was uncovered—Sinclair acknowledged the anachrony and the temporal and spatial dialectic between absence and presence at work in spectrality:

We have to imagine some stupendous whole wherein all that has ever come into being or will come co-exists, which, passing slowly on, leaves in this flickering consciousness of ours, limited to a narrow space and a single moment, a tumultuous record of changes and vicissitudes that are but to us.

So it’s all there in the breath of the stones. There is a geology of time! We can take the bricks into our hands: as we grasp them, we enter it. The dead moment only exists as we live it now. No shadows across the landscape of the past – we have the past, we have what is coming; we arrive at what was, and we make it now.

In Rodinsky’s room—where Rodinsky is both absent presence and present absence, and the residue of the past exists in the present—time is out of joint.

Rodinsky’s Room is a place through which Sinclair can articulate his theory of history. Sinclair’s work on London exhibits meticulously, some might say obsessively, researched histories of the city, yet their intent is never to actualise history from the ‘top down,’ so to speak, or to organise history as a ‘continuous, systematic narrative of past events (Sinclair, 2004). In his breakthrough collection of essays on London, Lights Out for the Territory (1997) Sinclair outlined his concept of history. It is

the revenge of the disenfranchised. Improvisations of history that are capable of making adjustments in present time. […] The past is fluid, a black swamp; dip for whatever you need. Stepping off the main road at this point lands you right in it.

Sinclair is excavating neglected or occulted seams of history. Rodinsky and his room are two of these seams. Structurally, the book is a montage that alternates between Lichtenstein’s and Sinclair’s first person narratives. The fragmented, multi-perspectival approach also incorporates many other voices from past and present East End inhabitants. There are, then, two methodologies at work here: Lichtenstein’s, as she has explained elsewhere, is autobiographical, genealogical, mnemonic, and Sinclair’s is a meta-narrative that functions as a commentary on Lichtenstein’s methodology. As far as Sinclair is concerned Lichtenstein’s involvement in the project is crucial because her authority to tell the story far exceeds Sinclair’s. She is, Sinclair says, linked to the story through

[o]wnership: without title deeds or rent book. Ownership, in the high Blakean style, by assertion; by incorporating the everyday particular into a mythological structure. Title by possession. By love. By painstakingly recovered memory.

More significantly, Lichtenstein has been designated by some occult energy to ventriloquise the tale of Rodinsky and his room, at least according to Sinclair. His inventory of her roles emphasises the spectral dimension of her histories which undo time and create anachrony:

The more documentation Rachel could file, the more artefacts she could photograph and label, the more elusive this fiction, David Rodinsky, became. She improvised with all the required roles: private detective, archaeologist, curator, ghost-writer, ventriloquial deliverer of Rodinsky’s voice and art. She realised with a proper sense of dread, that the business of her life, this stretch of it, was to complete whatever it was that Rodinsky had begun: to pass beyond ego, and all the dusty particulars of place and time, into a parallel state. Disincarnate. Unbodied. Eternally present.

Time is out of joint in Lichtenstein’s re-telling of Rodinsky’s life. Sinclair borrows the figure of the golem from Jewish mythology to contextualise Lichtenstein’s re-writing of Rodinsky’s biography. As conceived in Gustave Meyrink’s 1914 eponymous tale, the golem is another paradoxical presence that is an absence.


Sinclair explains,

In movement the golem is unseen, only when he comes to rest is he vulnerable. […] Sudden invisibility is a consequence of recognition. Speak of him and he isn’t there. But any new telling of the tale can only begin from the disappearance.

The erasure, disappearance, absence of the golem is a counterpoint to the obscene visibility of other spectacularized iterations of history that Sinclair detects in ‘baggy horrors about stinky, seething Elizabethan/Victorian London, poverty porn illustrated from the archive. Wormy history cooked up to make us feel good about the thin air of the present.’ For Sinclair, the epitome of history as spectacle is the insistent visualisations of the Dennis Severs House, a contemporary re-enactment of Georgian London in a Spitalfields house. Overweening visibility is the Severs House’s failure. It indicates, Sinclair says, ‘a loss of undertext. Everything is suddenly explained, overemphasized, brochured.’

Sinclair is an obscurantist preferring to milk occult sources that exist outside any official or visible economies of knowledge and that resist resurrection. Sinclair exalts the evasive Rodinsky as the ‘man who invented himself through his disappearance. [… He] perched under the eaves, a crow, unremarked and unremarkable – until that day in the Sixties when he achieved the great work and became invisible.’ For Sinclair, Rodinsky’s room is captivating precisely because it is ‘a missing text. A text that had been worn away by indifference, the exigencies of the everyday.’ This predilection for the unknowable, the unseen, the chthonic—’It was the bits you couldn’t see, black holes on the map, unlisted bunkers and disregarded lives that made most noise’ —becomes a compulsive resistance to the London whose secret histories have been brought to light, and exploited by the heritage industry, gentrifiers, and real estate developers.

Cultural historian Patrick Wright explains how Rodinsky’s room was implicated in the commodification of place in London through the excavation of hidden histories, a process that Wright has called ‘ghosting’:

With its layers of engrained filth and its walls papered over with newsprint, this foul little hole stands in unmistakable tribute to the documentary tradition. […] By the Eighties, and especially when the property market started to move, this blitzed-out imagery of the slum interior was being augmented and put to very different purposes: it was beginning to turn up in the brochures of the more style-conscious estate agents in nearby areas like Islington.

Sinclair alludes to ‘ghosting’ when his says that Rodinsky and his story generate mainstream interest only as far as they can be appropriated as marketing devices:

It is uncertain how many weeks or years passed before anyone noticed his absence. He had evaporated, and would remain as dust, his name unspoken, to be resurrected only as a feature, a necessary selling point, to put alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor in the occult fabulation of the zone that the Eighties demanded to justify a vertiginous inflation in property values.

In Sinclair’s view, textual appropriation of London and of its histories by artists and writers can be akin to ghosting, and other modes of spatial colonisation like surveillance and gentrification. Thus, Sinclair’s role in the ghosting process is ambivalent. On the one hand, a work like Rodinsky’s Room attributes cultural value to a previously overlooked London history by the very virtue of writing about it. On the other hand, that value ultimately hinges on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible once Sinclair’s writing moves it into the spotlight.

Marc Atkins, Rodinsky’s Mirror in Liquid City

The textual metaphor evoked by Rodinsky’s Room is the palimpsest. The palimpsest comes into being when new layers of text partially erase or obscure extant layers. The palimpsest is therefore not conceived as solely an accumulation of residue, but also as erasure. The products of this dialectic of accumulation and erasure are the Derridean supplement, which ‘intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.’  The layers of the palimpsest are therefore heterochronotopes that are dialogic in their ahistorical multiplicity. They produce anachrony. These spectral marks and lacunae of the palimpsest  ‘speak’ in their original voice, communicating with new and previous traces and erasures, while retaining their otherness.  This spectrality therefore opens up a possibility for an ethical relationship with the inter-texts of history.

In Liquid City, Sinclair imagines London itself as a ‘textual palimpsest’, as a tissue of partially remembered and forgotten histories. This conceit was elaborated earlier in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings:

The bar has its own sense of what it should be: damp wood bowed like whalebone, cabin-close, engravings of the old city, its secret corners, obscure messages. This interior has a narrative quality […]. WE have to settle ourselves into a text; nothing is written, everything re-written. We are retrospective. Even the walls are soaked with earlier tales, aborted histories.

Literary critic Julian Wolfreys has imagined Sinclair’s writing, too, as a palimpsest, a dialogic layering of inter-texts that mimics the heteroglot text of the city.

This brings us to Sinclair’s methodology in reading and writing the palimpsest. Sinclair’s London is constituted through what is no longer there, as opposed to what is tangible, visible, knowable. In this he is sympathetic to the politics of Situationist psychogeography, the objective of which was to resist and subvert hegemonic urban flows through transformed encounters with the city. In an extended conversation with the journalist Kevin Jackson published in 2003, Sinclair was asked about his interest in psychogeography:

Jackson: It’s more than a metaphor for you?

Sinclair: It’s more than a metaphor.

Jackson: But at the heart of it is the belief that something which happens in a place permanently affects that place?

Sinclair: Very much so. There are these acoustic chambers in the city, voices and echoes…The material that’s sometimes called ‘psychogeography’ is loosely based on that era of primitively sounding out place through possession or séance, rather than […] trying to summon entities, to communicate with them or control them. It wasn’t that at all. It was as if certain places released voices.

In the tradition of William Blake, who we might retrospectively think of as the archetypal London psychogeographer, Sinclair transcribes the spectral voices that emanate from the palimpsestic architecture and streets of London, from which he, in turn, constructs his own written palimpsests. Indeed, in Dark Lanthorns: A Rodinsky A-Z, a small press book published alongside Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair uses the spectral textual traces left by Rodinsky in a copy of the London A-Z  as the map for a psychogeography of London. Psychogeography, therefore, becomes the means to acknowledge the spectral. At one point in Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair describes the room as a ‘vortex.’ A vortex connotes movement, and Sinclair believes history’s objective should not be to ‘freeze time, to wrap precious fragments from another time in clingfilm.’ This idea of an inanimate history, mummified, fossilised, ossified, dead is not one to which Sinclair subscribes. Rather, history is vibrating, energised by spectral presences and absences.

(This is a version of a paper I originally presented at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis‘ Spectral Cities seminar series.)

a sinclair A-Z: m is for market (and metonymy)


The story of London is the story of its markets.

– Iain Sinclair, 2006

Michel de Certeau writes, ‘Stories […] carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places. They also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces.’ (1984: 118) This is what Iain Sinclair has been doing in 40 years of writing about East London. Sinclair’s writing provides a salient case study on how literature produces, and is produced by, place. His distinctive voice and singular eye offer a complex account of spatial and cultural transformation in the city’s east from the 1970s up to the London 2012 Olympics. Sinclair’s sustained literary engagement with the affective, mnemonic, temporal, spatial and political dimensions of place in East London incorporates documentary modes of research, reportage, and interview, and relies on observed details of the everyday practices, texts and encounters that create and communicate a sense of place.

In explaining his gravitation to East London as subject matter, and as a place from which to write, Sinclair cited the street market as an influence: ‘Here was my raw material, a job for life, picking at a mythology of place: subterranean conspiracies, lost writers, the action in street markets.’ He goes further, ‘The story of London is the story of its markets.’  Sinclair’s positioning of the narrative of the market as metonymical to the narrative of the city is a recognition of the existential intertwining of the two. Historically towns and cities have developed around, and depended on the market for their identity.

There are few public spaces that are more universally touted as indicative of local ‘flavour’ than markets. Tourist guidebooks exalt the parochial qualities of marketplaces around the world, yet Sinclair’s representation of the local street market as integral to place goes beyond the travelogue’s quest for local colour and the market as site for touristic modes of consumption. Consequently, his depiction of the market avoids the type of objectification of the city that Henri Lefebvre detected in contemporary textual mediations of the urban:

[The text] takes the form of a document, or an exhibition, or a museum. The city historically constructed is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an aestheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque. (1996: 148)

For Sinclair, the market is not a site for observation or participation from a consumer’s point of view as is often the case in travel writing. It is the location of the everyday: Sinclair had a secondhand bookstall at Camden Passage in Islington for years, and in his years as a bookdealer, markets such the ones on Cheshire St off Brick Lane were a source of his wares.

The markets Sinclair depicts are metonymical to the historical perception of East London itself – the menacing, unknown, exotic, dirty ‘other’ to the London of political and financial power, and the London on tourist postcards. Sinclair’s first novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) is an investigation of the mythopoeia of place in the East End using the subcultural milieu of the secondhand book trade. In this work, markets are marginalized arenas where waste and commodities mix promiscuously. The bookdealer/ragpickers in White Chappell are an unfortunate, blighted lot barely existing on the leftovers of others, and Dickensian allusion is satirically applied to accentuate the comic pathos and degradation of their lives:

Dryfeld growls through the vans, pokes into sacks, storms among the sheds of rag pickers, elbows over terminal waste-lots, where old bones have been spread out to dry, more for exhibition than with any serious expectation of a sale. He snarls back at the caged animals, bird yelp, rancid fish tanks, heavy jaw’d fighting beasts dealt, as they have been for over a hundred years, under the railway arches. The sentiment of the local inhabitants flattered by having some creature whose existence is even worse than their own. (1995: 38)

Similarly, in an essay from 1997 ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’ Sinclair’s prose is infinitely inventive in characterising the goods at the now obsolete Farringdon Road secondhand book market as refuse:

 George had, over the years, dispersed acres of country house libraries […]: remorseless tides of salvage. Rare Victorian pamphlets, plump Edwardian bindings, railway fiction – he graded the lot, hemp sack or auction table. He kept the culture of print in flow. He served it like a pest controller, a water bailiff. Perched above the Fleet ditch, he shovelled the failed remnants, the picked-over dross, into the corporation’s dustcarts. These Farringdon Road barrows were the court of final appeal. After the frantic ceremonies of the predators there was extinction. (1997: 19)

 As hyperbolic as Sinclair’s portraits appear, the recognition here is that markets are potentially heterotopic spaces, where the heterogeneity of identities, encounters, practices and goods indicates a Lefebvrian right to the city (Lefebvre, 1996). The market celebrated by Sinclair metonymically enacts the types of sociality and recognition of difference that the city enables, and to an extent, requires. Historically, this is characteristic of the marketplace as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White explain.

[a]t once a bounded enclosure and a site of open commerce, it is both the imagined centre of an urban community and its structural interconnection with the network of goods, commodities, markets, sites of commerce and places of production which sustain it. A marketplace is the epitome of local identity (often indeed it is what defined a place as more significant than surrounding communities) and the unsettling of that identity by the trade and traffic of goods from elsewhere. At the market centre of polis we discover a comingling of categories usually kept separate and opposed: centre and periphery, inside and outside, stranger and local, commerce and festivity, high and low. In the marketplace pure and simple categories of thought find themselves perplexed and one-sided. Only hybrid notions are appropriate to such a hybrid place. (1986: 27)

Sinclair’s interest in erstwhile markets does not necessarily equate with substantiating nostalgic memories of the East London street market. In fact, nostalgia can negatively affect the wellbeing of the market. In City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters (2006), Sophie Watson documents a London microclimate fractured by the politics of resentment, which are played out in the local street market. In Watson’s case study, the territorial disputes are about a sense of entitlement to the market based on perceptions of whether groups of migrants in the area have assimilated or not. The evident decline in the market’s fortunes was attributed to those who didn’t ‘fit in’. The disenchantment was in part triggered by a detrimental nostalgia amongst certain members of the market community about an acknowledgment of the other in the past that did not undermine an imagined sense of localism. Watson noted that in addition to being an inaccurate reflection of how interactions between the various stakeholders were conducted in the past, the nostalgia blocked recognition of social diversity in the present day.

Significantly, Watson’s study reveals that the state of the market functions as a barometer of the social cohesion and resilience of the community who use it. In alignment with Sinclair’s aphorism, the story of the market forms a metonymy with the story of the neighbourhood. Similarly, the social, cultural and historical narratives of East London’s markets are encoded with narratives on the effects on place as the city’s east undergoes transformation from an industrial, working class area to a globally visible site of postindustrial urban renewal.


One metonymical example is the fruit and vegetable market relocated in 1991 from Spitalfields where it had been since the 17th century. The noise, crowds, refuse and congested roads in spite of their authenticity lost their appeal for newcomers buying up the area’s Georgian heritage in the 1980s. The significantly redeveloped site (image above) now houses office space, upmarket eateries and boutiques, chain stores and a market selling handicrafts and antiques, which are a better match for the consumer habits, tastes and incomes of Spitalfields’ current residents.


Another metonymical narrative is that of the Saturday flea market at Hackney Wick Stadium whose ‘scavengers’ Sinclair described as ‘electively third world, trading in things with no value, curating trash.’ The market disappeared when its terrain was swallowed up by the Olympics site, a not uncommon disappearance in the development of the London 2012 brand.

Kingsland Waste market, about which Sinclair has written ‘it lives down to its name […] intensely local and of diminishing interest to outsiders’ (2009: 101) , also enacts a metonymy of place. Its used furniture and clothing stalls barely exists on the edge of Kingsland Rd where they are under constant scrutiny from the local authorities who claim health and safety concerns as a means of regulating the market. Its real offence is that its mess and disorder is contrary to the ‘place-image’ of East London in the lead-up to 2012. It is worth quoting Rob Shields (1991) at length on the complex and labile mechanics of place-image:

 Through a process of labelling, sites and zones associated with particular activities become characterised as being appropriate for exactly those types of activities. Other activities are excluded, forced into the wilderness or barren spaces “outside” of civilised realm, or they are associated with their own dichotomous spaces. […]

[Place-images] are the various discrete meaning associated with real places or regions regardless of their character in reality. Images, being partial and often either exaggerated or understated, may be accurate or inaccurate. They result from stereotyping, which over-simplifies groups of places with a region, or prejudices towards places or their inhabitants. A set of core images forms a widely disseminated and commonly held set of images of a place or space. These form a relatively stable group of ideas in currency, reinforced by their communication value as conventions circulating in a discursive economy. […] Collectively a set of place-images forms a place-myth. Thus, there is a constancy and a shifting quality to this model of place- or space-myths as the core images change slowly over time, are displaced by radical changes in the nature of a place, and as various images simply lose their connotative power, becoming ‘dead metaphors’, while others are invented, disseminated and become accepted in common parlance.

Opposed groups may succeed in generating antithetical place-myths (as opposed to just variations in place-images) reflecting different class experiences […].(60-61)

Another metonymy of place in East London that Sinclair has commented upon is one that is consistent with the London 2012 place-image. The Saturday market that has been held at Broadway Market in Hackney since 2005 is an emergent ‘other’ to the vanishing East London markets.


For Sinclair it is a rudimentary example of gentrification’s attendant monoculturalism.

Hackney Wick [flea market] disappears into a pre-Olympic limbo of exaggerated promises and present suspension of liberties. But in another part of the borough, Broadway Market, jellied-eel mythology gives way to a pastiched Islington. No 50p tat here: discriminations of olive oil, fancy breads and a stall selling lush volumes by notable photographers.

According to Sinclair, in a piece that appeared somewhat ironically in the ‘Property’ section of a Sunday newspaper, Broadway Market is located in one of the socially ‘embattled areas’ of the East, ‘a limbo of local cafés and barbers, [that] was promoted, overnight, as the new Portobello Road: bistro to retro.’ Sinclair even claimed in an interview that the transformation of Broadway Market triggered the genesis of Hackney: that Rose Red Empire, his 2009, 600+ page homage to pre-Olympics Hackney.

I took a contract, as you do, for a totally different kind of book […] Then, one morning, I was going through Broadway Market and I met about 20 people I knew, but from all over London, all buying a loaf of bread and a bag of tomatoes for 20 quid, and I thought: this is it. I’ve got to start now, or it’s gone.

As Sinclair outlines, Broadway Market in its current guise sells products that are not about necessity or custom, but about cultural capital and aspirational consumption: vintage clothing, handmade crafts, artisanal produce.


It is synonymous with the inhabitants of and visitors to the ‘new’ East London, those whose work and leisure are represented by the creative industries, so much so that the market has become a lightening rod for backlash against the new social demographic.

This is how a satirical Tumblr blog Hackney Hipster Hate parodied the population shift in East London.


At the same time, the Broadway Market website evokes nostalgic ideas of the East London barrow boy, albeit grown up, on its homepage:


The accompanying text reads:

Barrow boys have been welcoming shoppers to Broadway Market in Hackney since the 1890s […]. John and his mate Tony […] may be the last in the line. John started selling fruit and veg on the market nearly 50 years ago. [… N]ow his barrows are the centrepiece of the revived Saturday market.

John and Tony’s inclusion only draws attention to a discrepancy between the residents from the adjacent areas who frequented the previous market and the clientele of the reconceptualised Market.


Sinclair reads the new Broadway Market as ‘a version of the Notting Hill effect kicking in. You’ve got astonishing pockets of real wealth and cultural aspiration.’ Indeed, James Meek’s piece for the LRB in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots situated Broadway Market as exemplary in exhibiting the propinquity of deprivation and affluence in the city. He wrote ‘When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension.’ On the Saturday I visited, I watched those coming up from the surrounding estates avoiding the stalls – except John and Tony’s – to use the local Costcutter, the Post Office, and the betting shop.

IMG_1081_3 IMG_1066 IMG_1347 IMG_1349IMG_1350 IMG_1354

A YouTube video about the market captures the disjuncture Meek and I observed with an exchange between the market’s managers and a local resident who complains about prices at the market, to which the market’s organisers suggest she go further afield to Chapel Market in Islington or Ridley Road in Dalston.

As the video shows, the Saturday market’s community also deployed the rhetoric of place and the local. Indeed, the politics of whose idea of place has more literal and symbolic authority in Broadway Market are not as simple as Sinclair’s metonymy of place based on a schema of gentrification and urban renewal suggests. Although Sinclair writes that ‘Nothing is quite what it seems in this place; contradictory memories of the same events haunt a [Hackney] now determined, if those in authority get their way, to obliterate the structures and mythologies of a difficult but fondly remembered past’ it was left to his friend and collaborator Patrick Wright to explore the complexities of this particular East London narrative in the 2009 re-issue of his 1991 book Journey Through Ruins.

According to Wright’s account, the Saturday market that replaced the desultory previous street market was an initiative that came from shopowners and traders themselves, and faced opposition from Hackney Council and from the developers to whom the Council had sold off commercial properties along the street. Broadway Market activated complex ideas of belonging and mobilized stallholders who had a level of self-reflexivity about the implications of their presence, and were sufficiently concerned about the social plurality of the area to be actively involved in protesting the rent rises and evictions faced by long-time residents after the sell-off.

However, as Meek points out, ‘Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it.’ For many urban dwellers, the possibility of spontaneously encountering the other in the streets is not an attractive proposition, except as an abstract notion, or within zones demarcated specifically for that purpose of which the market is one. Meek quotes Slavoj Zizek (from his book Violence) who posits this social insularity as essentially neo-liberal in character:

Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other … My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that Ishould not get too close to him, intrude on his space. […] What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society […] is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.

Broadway Market on a Saturday is an example of the condition Zizek describes. Due to its association with the customary, notions of place can veer towards the conservative and nostalgic, and certainly when it is under contestation or under threat the discourses that mark place can be read as reactionary, exclusionary and/or territorial. The narrative of Broadway market is about contested rights to place, but is also one of resistance to the implications inbuilt in the ostensibly ‘progressive’ discourses and practices of ‘renewal’. In The Battle of Broadway Market, a doco by Emily James, the third-generation proprietor of the pie and mash shop compared Broadway Market in the 1990s to Beirut. So certainly there was some room for regeneration of the existing infrastructure as Wright’s history of the market concedes. Yet urban renewal often has the effect of degrading, in rhetoric and in practice, what was there before as Neil Smith points out:

The language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance suggests that affected neighborhoods were somehow devitalized or culturally moribund prior to gentrification. While this is sometimes the case, it is often also true that very vital working-class communities are culturally devitalized through gentrification […].’ (1996: 32)

Processes of urban renewal and gentrification view place as an optional attribute that enhances ‘lifestyle’ and thus property values, but if it is in conflict with these then its manifestations must be marginalized, transformed, or even eradicated. These processes manage place, to the extent that it can become a space on which to build something else. Place is still something that is alluded to for cultural authority or authenticity, but only through the contained space of the tokenistic metonym, or quotation as Sinclair calls it; public art, blue plaques, a carefully placed piece of renovated industrial detritus, an East London barrow boy in a reconfigured marketplace.

Traditionally the East London market has been a space where what Watson (2009) calls ‘rubbing along’ with difference and otherness has contributed to a sense of place. It has provided something beyond the temporary thrill of embodied street theatre for middle-class shoppers, that is, ‘a form of limited encounter between social subjects where recognition of different others through a glance or gaze […] has the potential to militate against the withdrawal into the self or private realm.’ (Watson, 2009: 1581) This is the East London market that Sinclair has written about. In this sense, markets can potentially provide what London lacks in the wake of the 2011 unrest, an antidote to what Zygmunt Bauman terms ‘mixophobia’ which ‘manifests itself in the drive towards islands of similarity and sameness amidst the sea of variety and difference.’ (2003: 31) Broadway Market in its current incarnation moves the market towards the mixophobic. In order to counter this it needs to be about grounded everyday practices and expressions of place that do not merely substantiate the dominant, official narrative or place-image about urban renewal in East London.

Works Cited

Zygmunt Bauman, City of Fears, City of Hopes, Goldsmiths College: London, 2003.

Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Rob Shields, Places on the margin: alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge, 1991.

Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, London: Vintage, 1995.

Iain Sinclair, “Skating on Thin Eyes,” Inventory 2.1 : 8-12. Also published in an extended version in Lights Out for the Territory, London: Granta, 1997.

Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, London: Penguin, 2009.

Sophie Watson, City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters, London: Routledge, 2006.

Sophie Watson, ‘The Magic of the Marketplace: Sociality in a Neglected Public Space’, Urban Studies, 46(8) July 2009, pp: 1577–1591.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier : Gentrification and the Revanchist City, London: Routledge, 1996.

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The politics and poetics of transgression, London: Methuen, 1986.

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.