Veils of allusion

Iain Sinclair walks London’s sacred geometries, pursuing a dérive that moves obliquely across the familiar, prosaic territories of the city. Or he consecrates the geometries of his walking. Or he territorialises a sacred ambulation. This triangle, of place, movement and meaning, is the tripod on which these two short books stand – anthologised in a single volume here. It does not appear possible to separate these three pillars within Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, each of which seems to produce the others. It is a triad which has been of interest to many, very different kinds of writer. My grandfather, Reyner Banham, for instance, in his seminal analysis of Los Angeles, identifies movement through very clearly as the factor which induces that place to disclose its particular and definitive meanings. In a similar way, Iain Sinclair deploys his deep knowledge of place and of esoteric tradition to slice through the accretions of London’s history. It is not easy to follow him, his prose and verse equally elliptical, supersaturated and allusive, but in this volume he embodies the Foucauldian adage that ‘knowledge is not for understanding: knowledge is for cutting.’

Both books have been characterised as a combination of poetry and non-fiction, but Sinclair’s prose, while it is clearly not fiction, is also not any of the forms of prose we are accustomed to receive as not being fiction. At times it presents Sinclair as as third-person narrator, and at others it narrates the activities of William Blake’s Sons of Albion, reimagined as contemporary Londoners; but it is always rooted in scholarship, and in a vision of the city as something we must work to grasp. This is not to say that I have grasped either the city or Sinclair’s representation of it.

When I say that the work is allusive, I mean that it frequently continues for page on end as a tissue of nothing but allusion, with nary a concrete notion to root the reader. I don’t mean to suggest that concrete detail is absent: Lud Heat includes episodes from Sinclair’s work as a council gardener, and the narratives of Blake’s characters in Suicide Bridge are made vivid by precisely imagined material details. But in addition to the long stretches of text in which I found nothing to anchor me in either my experience or my limited knowledge, there is always the suspicion that any apparently prosaic detail is included because, for Sinclair, it is numinous.

The form of the text on the page owes a great deal to Vorticism. Percy Wyndham Lewis is name-checked explicitly, and Ezra Pound is present both in Sinclair’s elliptical versification, and in the appearance of the prose in Lud Heat, which is strongly reminiscent of Pound’s famous essay ‘Vortex’. Indeed, the language presents itself to the reader almost literally as a vortex, a swirling, cyclical onrush of words, spilling out fragments of H.P. Lovecraft, of Hindu and Masonic symbolism, of Western ritual magic, of Blake, of Baroque architecture, of Celtic and Egyptian mythology, of dozens of other sources that largely went straight over my head. It is full of wonderful, resonant phrases, lines and paragraphs, but they never seem to sit still for me to parse them. It is a torrent that, for the most part, moves too rapidly and too powerfully for me to find my way into it; instead I am deposited repeatedly onto the bank of the river, gasping for breath, unsure of where I am or how I got there. And then I plunge doggedly back in, because, y’know, it’s a book, and I finish books.

The territorialisation that Sinclair enacts, the dérive that he pursues, is not based on just any personal, happenstance negotiation of urban topology, but is a product of his considerable erudition in the fields mentioned above. He identifies a sacred geometry inscribed on London by the six churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1712 and 1730, which do indeed mark out the vertices of an irregular hexagram when viewed on the map – so of course do any six randomly selected points, but Sinclair’s interest is not in ‘understanding’, in uncovering a given meaning, but in ‘cutting’, in creating it, in sculpting it by slicing away what is extraneous.

This geometry is a direct inspiration for Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, and also for Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, but it has been an indirect inspiration for many more works: Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, Moore’s Jerusalem, I suspect various stories in 2000AD such as the Pat Mills scripted Defoe, Guy Adams scripted Hope, and John Smith (later Kek-W) scripted Indigo Prime… and other writings both known and unknown to me. It sits at a nexus between works, producing a kind of atemporal, geometric intertextuality, in which Blake, Moorcock, Moore, Ackroyd, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, W.G. Sebald and anyone else who has spatialised the ineluctable linearity of language, mark out a mandala across a history of reading and writing. I can’t claim to have been other than baffled by this volume, and I didn’t enjoy reading it as I had hoped and expected, but I’m still glad I did. It offers the reader, confused or otherwise, a position from which to observe this constructed sacred geometry of the text, and for me it has opened a door to territories and networks I will be a long time exploring.

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