"We don't yet know if there's a God - and you want to eat!"
An episodic examination of the modern soul by THOMAS McGRATH who spent two months in 2009 looking for it.
[This interview took place in 2009]
ON TUESDAY I interviewed Iain Sinclair, Hackney's resident White Wizard. I was, to say the least, somewhat nervous about it. After all, this is a writer whose London Orbital is adorned with a quotation from the late JG Ballard, in which the seer of Shepperton asserts that Sinclair's book (a fabulous document of his counterclockwise hike around the M25), will "still be read in fifty years time"! That's fifty years of Ballard time - a pretty rough passage, you feel, for the internet, let alone English prose. London Orbital thoroughly deserved the voluminous praise heaped upon it, a work in which Sinclair shook reality so hard that it alchemically transformed itself into fantastical fiction, revealing a territory both proximate and alien, and delivered in exhilarating prose that frequently attains the preternatural shimmer of truly great writing. This Saturday, at London festival Occulture, Sinclair will be introducing the accompanying film with which he documented that inspired expedition, and I seized the opportunity to meet him.
My introductory email would be my first notable obstacle to achieving that end, however. Almost every word (including some of the commonest little monosyllables) found itself cut, pasted and plunged into an online dictionary; distinguishing between there, their and they're unveiled itself as a Derridean riddle: my English had become a panic tongue, a fourth language hastily acquired by the tourist-victim of a Mexican miscarriage of justice. Eventually, the bland little missive was ready, and I dispatched it with a tentative tap (or spasm) of the mouse. Within seconds a response was embedded in my own inbox - Sinclair breezily accepting my agonised invitation to lunch. Beneath his reply was the initial invite, which I fruitlessly checked over one last time. It began: "Dear Ian" (sic). I clamped a knuckle between my teeth and prepared for the worst…
I met Iain at a Turkish café in his adopted Hackney, the London borough in which he has lived for over four decades but only recently colonised in prose with the latest contribution to his weighty oeuvre, the surprisingly voluptuous Hackney, that Rose Red Empire. His imminent appearance at Occulture gave me the wonderful excuse to ask him all about his association with esotericism and the occult; along with authors like Yeats and Burroughs, Sinclair is part of a tradition of celebrated modern writers for whom the supernatural is a fact (albeit a complicated one). It was interesting to learn that, as with both Yeats and Burroughs, Sinclair also identifies childhood experiences as responsible for demarcating a reality broader than the narrow box most inherit.
In person, Sinclair, like his prose, exudes benevolent mischief, little resembling the languid intellectual captured in footage and photograph. He spoke about topics ranging from the occult to the Olympics, and even addressed (with pleasing spontaneity) some of issues touched upon in this very blog.
(ME) JG Ballard appears in the film and book of London Orbital. He was a very vocal exponent of your work, and I was wondering what he made of the esoteric motifs that run through it…
(SINCLAIR): I imagine he ignored them. His take on the world was his take on the world and other people's worlds were interesting in as much as they were kind of refractions of things he was interested in himself. He certainly responded to the whole notion of the landscape of the edge lands of London as revealed in the film because that was exactly his whole territory - although this was coming from a very different angle. And the madness of my walking through it, which is something he would never have contemplated, interested him because one of his great themes was the obsessive and satanic nature of Moby Dick. Moby Dick was one of his great markers. That book, and this sort of Ahab- like tramping around this orbital landscape, was really appealing to him, so it was sort of like a combination of Moby Dick and Ballard.
How do you think he interpreted obsession, from a Freudian perspective?
Yes I think largely he did. His whole work in a sense was about psychosis. It was about early fractures in his own life, the breakdown he saw of the English version of colonialism that he'd grown up in, and then the England he arrived back in, which he always said was like coming from a colour movie and into a black and white newsreel, and feeling estranged from it and having to come up with devices that could energise a world of boredom and greyness. And the subversive strategies he adopted were obviously incredibly effective
Do you think he would have interpreted your esoteric motifs as examples of 'subversive strategies'?
I think he read me with a sense of difference, along with a sense of its parallel, sympathetic nature to what he was doing himself. He didn't want to engage with the inner city at all. He didn't like the inner city, didn't like the old buildings, he didn't want to be part of that. So someone doing that was interesting as a sort of alien species. And the way I wrote was so different to the way he wrote, that stripped forensic style, that again he was interested in it for its difference. But then when we got to know each other best I would sort of move into his territory and discuss things within his sphere of interest.
Did you ever try to discuss things from your own territory?
No. I mean I found him strangely like a version of Sir Les Patterson; very, very genial, very civilised, very friendly and generous in all his dealings. In a sense you felt he was like a being from another time or another world. I was just very happy to listen to him and gather up little fragments from his memory banks.
I was curious, because another writer he was very interested in was William Burroughs, with whom he must also have been confronted by many beliefs he would have had to completely 'ignore'.
I think Michael Moorcock introduced him to Burroughs very early on. He saw Burroughs very much as a kind of version of what he did himself. But they couldn't really get on in personal terms because they were both so strange. His writing was much closer to the way Burroughs writes than to the way I write. When I first knew his work I felt him very much to be a sort of English Burroughs, in that he was dealing with a kind of deep-in-the-bone satire and misogyny and darkness, but then as time went on I think he moved away from that and they became quite separate. But they both had that stoic humour; they both trained as doctors and gave up on it. Ballard by the end was sort of making his own mental prognosis of a culture - and Burroughs had become this Zen outlaw figure, stepped away from the word and into image, dream and ritual practise.
You met Burroughs, did you find him as taciturn as he was purported to be?
Well I had dealings with him from very early on, and corresponded with him when I was a teenager, then published him in Ireland, and was going to do a film with him, so I knew him a bit in that period. But then he went into Scientology and I lost touch with him. I didn't meet him again until he was pretty old and living in Kansas, and by that time he was totally detached, we didn't have a conversation where I felt he was present at all. It was fascinating to see him, to be with him, but he wasn't there. But Ballard was there and was somebody you could have a friendly relationship with in a way you never could with Burroughs. If you fell within his circle of disciples you could have a kind of relationship of power with Burroughs, but otherwise not. Whereas a lot of people had good friendly relations with Ballard as long as it was on his terms.
You mentioned Burroughs going over to Scientology. What did you make of that?
I though it was an interesting process for him, and provoked metaphor for lots of stuff in his writing. For me it was completely deranged and extreme, but I could see why he'd want to do it, and I had a lot of sympathy with him going there, even though it was completely inconvenient because we were trying to start a film at that point and he just completely lost interest.
Scientology's very interesting. This pseudo-scientific mask covering an esoteric system…
Yes with L Ron Hubbard as this sort of science fiction writer, super-galactic conman character with the boat and the slaves and this notion of the occult. The cult aspect of the occult.
Do you see the connection between demagoguery and magic as intrinsic?
I think it is, from my experience of the nature of the practitioners. Apart from, say, someone like Alan Moore, who is not at all a demagogue, but is a pretty full-blown magical practitioner, and that's one of the most important elements of his work. I just got yesterday morning The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this comic he's doing, in which a fictional character, an alter-ego of mine called Norton, appears, drawn to look like me - or sort of a mad Nazi dentist or something - spouting this occult loaded madness in a comic strip! Like a parody of aspects of my writing. But Alan's engagement with magic doesn't seem to be in any way about personal power. In a sense it's more to do with some deep engagement with Northampton.
That's the distinction between white and black magic, the former you don't practise for the sake of personal gain…
Well Alan Moore sounds quite dark, to do with summoning particular demons and entities, but it can also seem really quite white in its nature, to do with natural forces and place and the nature of place; it's not to do with making magical entities work for him in other worlds.
Did you become interested in the occult through the Beats?
Well, occult is such a blanket term, it has aspects I was interested in through my family in Wales: my mother's side of the family were very interested in things that sound almost shamanic or magical you know, in terms of superstitions and the sense of the dead being ever-present and all those things, and rituals to do with horses' heads being dug up. All of that stuff was very familiar, all of that theatrical canopy was part of my childhood, so it seemed a natural thing rather than anything else. But this is to do with white magic, earth magic, and the druidic aspect, all of that stuff. And then looking into London and what was the nature and cultural make-up of London and its mythology you inevitably move into those areas, in terms of the nineteenth century of the Golden Dawn, Crowley… (recording indecipherable)
Then in the 60s and 70s, around that era, combined with a lot of the stuff that came out of the counterculture, earth magic and Carlos Castaneda, you know a lot of that was floating about. And then the whole thing cycles round to come back in a very different form in the aspect of politics. I began to see Thatcherite politics as a kind of black magic. But this is a metaphor as much as anything. I don't mean she actually sat around looking at a skull, although metaphorically she did, and then I think it became a battle in that sense, a battle for the city, for the soul of the city.
Do you see politics broadly as an esoteric realm?
No I see it as a profound unreality and one that's falling apart in front of our eyes. A projection that had no basis in reality, it was a mind game that involved a lot of symbols and mind control in terms of advertising and brain washing; all kinds of techniques that were essentially occult were used. But it fell apart - it wasn't real, it wasn't genuine, it wasn't about anything, there was no content. And it's quite interesting how it just dissolved and disintegrated in front of our eyes. The other thing is that a lot of the magical practises we're talking about are covert, esoteric, secret. You don't necessarily have to know these aspects in Yeats or something, but there it is, he's doing it and it only emerges later that it's the source of his poetry. Whereas in the political world it has to be totally visible, in theory, so there's a real schizophrenic bite there. They are calculating ways to hypnotise the masses, and at the same time they have to appear to not be doing any of the things that they are doing.
What do you make of the recent popularity of books regarding atheism and this whole debate?
Yeah, the adverts on the busses about God and all that; I thought, 'why are you fighting this campaign in this particular forum'. It's like a version of reality TV, it seems an argument in the wrong place. And then the other aspect are these enormously successful things like Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and all of this which are a Xerox of the real material, so far down the line from their sources that they become massively successful. That's the process in the world where you copy something, and copy it again, and copy it again and it loses its bite, but achieves a kind of formulaic, simple-minded version which appeals massively. People are interested in the underlying things, but they're getting them through the pre-chewed, pre-masticated form. And it works gigantically, you look at any of these massively successful things and then you go back always four steps to get to something where it's originally from.
But the success of all these books - The God Delusion, The Da Vinci Code - reflects people's underlying interest in these topics….
Yeah. It's clearly a deep thirst for an advance into new territory. But it comes from study and practise and a lot of other things which are done by yourself. You can't sort of dip into some easy guide and have it all done for you.
Did the composition of your last book entwine you more with Hackney or did you finally extricate yourself from the area?
In the short term it entwined me much more, because I got very much drawn into taking part in all the stuff that's going on here. Four nights a week, solidly, from February to now, I've just been doing stuff locally. Dozens and dozens of people have come with the projects they're doing and wanted me to see them or contribute to them. So in a sense it ultimately involved me more in the area. But in other senses I feel I would now like to disappear into the landscape and keep well clear of it.
But you can't now…
I mean, we're not going to win. Whatever it is I'm writing about will be comprehensively wiped out by what's happening. The whole of Dalston Lane is going to disappear into this kind of Barratt monolith, and around Morning Lane around Ridley Road. So I think people will become much more fragmented, and the lines of energy which I talk a lot about will be broken up. I think the whole psychology of Dalston is going to become much more neurotic, nervous and dangerous.
I live there…
Good! Good! That makes it interesting.
Do you think the Olympic Committee is it a malevolent force?
I think so. Big time. I think they were so mendacious that a level of malignancy has been embedded into the system. In the same way that now the whole kind of nonsense with the MPs and their swine-like behaviour that's supposedly minor- 'it's all within the body of the law' blah blah blah - but unveils a system of double standards, greed, madness …and with the Olympics it's is the same thing but on a vast, vast scale. And at a time of financial meltdown it's economic insanity for a kind of folly of a project that involves huge expulsion of so much which is of value, and the destruction of the whole kind of environment, to present something that is totally unreal and only for a very short space of time. And all that's left behind is what? A sort of monstrous shopping mall, like Westfield in Shepherd's Bush.
Have you taken much interest in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics?
Yeah I have. I haven't been there but I've talked to a few Chinese people. It's moderately grim and in places like Athens it's very grim, a total disaster. They've got these huge stadiums totally unused and just rotting, rotting away. They can't afford to keep them up and there's no use for them. They're going to be paying them off for the next fifty years, and the break up in Greek society, with young people taking to the streets and feeling really, really disaffected, is all very much to do with what happened with the Olympics, and all the debts that have been incurred to push through with this grand project that only revealed this moral bankruptcy and left this catalogue of ruins. The only way it works is if you incorporate the games into structures that are already there, which can be done and to some extent if they had gone to France that would have happened.
Where does the motivation come from?
That's interesting. It's in part the hubristic sense that you still have it, you're the equal of China, you're still a player in the majors, when in fact you're not - you're a kind of offshore airstrip for the Americans. Politicians love these ceremonies, if you go back to Berlin in 1936 - that's really what it's about, the occult business of carrying the Olympic torch. You want something occult that's it, that's a kind of major public occult ceremony.
I liked your description of Thatcher's immediate deterioration upon leaving office as indicating that she had been sort of unhooked from some black magical power source…
We created her as much as she was psychically tapping on our bad will. All the bad will around was focussed on her, a sort of Metropolis robot creation, the ugliest thoughts and aspirations of the whole country, which gave her that dynamic and insane energy. And as you say, when she's unhooked she kind of crumbles away like an old mummy.
What do you make of Blair's recent bouncing good health, he seems very well?
He looks like a vampire; he was always a freakish, cartoon creation that was always grinning and bouncing, but again with zero content. Then he buys into the Catholic Church, he's like a Dan Brown character.
And what would be his esoteric archetype?
I'm not sure which one, but he definitely is from that territory. Much less powerful than Thatcher, but maybe he was just in the spirit of his own times. He's a chip, a kind of virtual fragment; he doesn't really exist at all, there's so little there. And he also had the sense to get off screen before it all really hit the fan, leaving this sort of lumbering, material creature - Brown - to pick up the flack for him.
It looks now a bit as if Blair was some sort of protective shield around the government, and in his sudden absence they're completely exposed.
Well he does confirm this idea that politics is a totally occult practise. You jumble all the elements together, create this shining, sort of hermaphroditic figure who just carries it all and then you remove him and everything's wiped out and you start again. All these other figures like Cameron and Clegg are just clones of Blair, they're the same thing, but it doesn't quite work yet because they've got almost too much content. But [Blair] began to look quite ill towards the end...
I thought that Iain might be interested in the Maitreya saga I discussed in my second and third posts. After the interview was over I switched off the recorder and (with a flick of the nose and my best off the record voice) began to tell him about Share International, Benjamin Crème and the Brick Lane messiah. By the time I was finished the mild curiosity in his eyes was completely extinguished; it was as if I'd just 'broken the news' that Princess Dianna was dead.
"Yes, I've written about that story," he explained.
"I think it was in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings."
"Ah. I haven't read that one. And you know that he supposedly lives in Brick Lane?"
"Yes of course - the entire book's about the area."
Naturally! So I recommend readers interested in further information and analysis of the Maitreya phenomenon look to the aforementioned title.
Sinclair disappeared with the same speed with which he arrived, departing with such haste that I forgot to ask him to scribble in some of the titles I had crammed into my rucksack, which then may as well have been full of bricks so far as my walk home was concerned - my stroll back to the 'neurotic, nervous and dangerous' (if impeccably fashionable) Dalston.