9. LIGHT GLYPHS: IAIN SINCLAIR
In his introduction to The Firewall: Selected Poems 1979 – 2006 (etruscan books, 2006), Iain Sinclair reflects, ‘[t]hey were the double lives I wanted most, film and poetry’. From his first book of poems (Back Garden Poems, 1970) and first film (Ah Sunflower!, 1967) onwards, Sinclair’s prolific and inventive work has travelled between those ‘double lives’ with such energy that doubles double: film, poetry, prose, documentary, memoir, history, place and the occultist exploration and collapse of all in restless combination have built a unique territory.
His own body of work a seething accretion of place, open to the same psychogeographic readings he pioneered. Following the novel, Downriver (1991), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Award, many readers know Sinclair through the connotations of Psychogeography. The writer as walker, perambulating London’s hallucinatory archaeologies of time through literary esoterica, off-the-radar experimentations, the grisly interventions of history, and the ‘reforgotten’ luminaries constellating nomads of the British underground.
And yet, what a gulf between that energy and the emptied ‘brand’ of ‘Psychogeography’ as it is most commonly perceived and practiced now. Encompassing histories of art, activism, literature and philosophy from Baudelaire and Guy Debord, what Sinclair sparked with new momentum began in the searing diary conspiracies of two long experimental poems from the 70s, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. Crackling ley lines between American and British poetry, drawing Blake and London graveyards into the paranoid revelations of Burroughs and the Projective breath of Black Mountain School poetics, specifically Charles Olson and Ed Dorn. Sinclair continued this contagious spirit across film (collaborating with Chris Petit, John Rogers, Grant Gee and Andrew Kötting) and in the ranging documentary prose of his London books. Now, far from the original circles of 60s and 70s avant-garde writing, or meandering in the unique atmosphere of W.G. Sebald, those connections between Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, Alan Moore, Gareth Evans, Stephen Watts, Patrick Keiller, Brian Catling, and Stewart Home, have left ‘Psychogeography’ as it becomes an increasingly hollowed tribute to its previous energy. Now more commonly encountered in the plodding reverence for the word ‘liminal’ and insipid academic riffs than ever actually building upon Sinclair’s work and its restless eye. A writer that merged inspiration from the dazzling rubble of Stan Brackhage’s films with the quick-cut observation of Tom Raworth’s poetry, is not likely to stand still. The writer, as the writing, is always journeying. The language and the light is moving.
My reading of Sinclair has always been – in all my self-absorbed insecurity – refracted through negotiating a desire to write that is (inevitably?) estranged from the hierarchies of awards culture, big publishers and the immediacy of social media. Reading Sinclair conferred a sense of permission and empowered assurance, to connect with a British history of writers that flourished far from such platforms (and before such platforms existed). To find an alternative map. The rites of lost paths and buried signs.
Whilst teaching Creative Writing on and off for a few years, I was always concerned with how much the university department pedalled awards culture. On one hand, I once taught a module on Critical Theory and Awards Culture…and on the other, the department’s hiring and structure was governed by the very same power dynamic of cultural capital it alleged to dismantle. Deconstruct all but the methods of deconstruction. But that is a very academic hypocrisy, prevalent in English and Creative Writing departments; constantly perpetuating the markets of evaluation that their staff and students have learnt to critique. An institution predicated on the same economies of value it purports to resist, leading to the cognitive dissonance of academic employment: advocating that which you will never embody. Meanwhile, outside of the ‘Art of the Proposal’ (Sinclair’s phrase), the bureaucratized judgements of validity, impositions of business models and palliative responsibility, in addition to the advertising frenzy of social media, there are ways of living and writing that connect – as they always have and always will – beyond these contradictions of ‘success’.
This context clearly led my own approach to Sinclair and formulated its own preconceived map of where the interview ‘might go’ – a devised narrative which Sinclair observes in his first answer. His writing is peopled by the writers that mainstream literary success will never anoint with that noxious perfume, prestige; those in their contemporaneity that will rarely find external affirmation but constitute, in correspondence, a strength and progress that transcends aspirations for recognition to exist in the conviction of its creation. The film with less backing has more freedom, the smaller press can take bigger risks. It is not re-configuring an embittered response to neglect or small readership; the unconvincing and masochistic integrity of elected obscurity. But instead, it is exploring the fervent turbines of art that carry on regardless, or that pitch themselves so far into the future or entangled so thoroughly in the past that their reception in the present will always be troubled. Admirably mad ambition thrives in the dark; modest pot-plants become ravenous triffids and ideas escalate into their own ragged jungles. It is the strange and committed play of the imagination and not its advertised image. The unpredictable tangent and not the promise of an application form. The weird, divisive and unfinished, not the by-committee labelling of merit. Vision before image.
Allen Ginsberg facing Sinclair’s camera in 1967, speaks directly into the lens:
If you will keep your mind on the image in front of you…which is my face in the camera or in your TV tube, or screen, and realise that I’m looking too – into a little black hole, imagining that you are there, and also imagining what would be possible to say that would actually communicate through all the electricity and all the glass and all the dots on the electric screen – so you’re not deceived by the image seen but that we are all on the same beam, which is you’re sitting in your room, surrounded by your body, looking at a screen, and I’m sitting in my garden, with my body, with the noise of cars outside – so we’re at least conscious of where we are and don’t get hypnotized into some false universe of pure imagery.
And then, 60 years later, in a documentary about The Last London, Sinclair is looking around at signs and adverts, posters, paint, digital promises of property development, and imagined virtual utopias, he observes that the city is
cannibalised in imagery – a monster eating itself with images of images of images – all the way through until we disappear into a great white dot.
I’d like to start by returning: to your occult diary as prose poetry… or prose as poetry and the emergence of poetry’s ley lines between: Lud Heat (Albion Village Press, 1975). Part feverish detective dream and part architectural autopsy, it threads and frays its searching eye through Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Greek histories of Herodotus and onwards through to Milton, Thomas De Quincey, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Olson, and further out spinning into the (then) present of Brian Catling, Chris Torrence and other counter-culture poetics of the 60s and 70s (a hieratic resonance with Lee Harwood’s The Long Black Veil, 1970-72, and the London traversals of Allen Fisher’s PLACE)…it is a long poem that, in short, draws together propulsive vision through a subterranean trail of poetic and literary coordinates…and yet also, running throughout is the presence of Film. There are references to F.W. Murnau, John Wayne, Bergman, Hammer Horror, Hollywood, Mario Bava, and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance…and the filmmaker that most explicitly overlooks the poetic/cinematic axis of the poem’s heat and dig – giant of the American avant garde – Stan Brackhage. His film, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, and his essay ‘margin alien’ both connect and surface in Lud Heat… I was wondering whether you could talk a bit about his influence in your work? It seems there is a really comparable energy in the restless and associative nature of his films and your writing (in prose and poetry) – where a Blakean vision meets the observational diary form. As well as his influence in your work, could you maybe also say a bit about your first experiences of encountering Brackhage’s films?
My problem with the necessary distance of this quarantine interrogation is that the questions you put are confessing, at length, whatever you found useful in reading my early books - while formulating your own counter-narrative through a lively and engaged critique. There really is no requirement for me to add anything further. I’ve had my say, back then, and a forced return to the territory is, inevitably, unreliable and self-serving. If we were sitting together, taking our time, or even in a seminar room, there would be space for useful digression and gossip, new detours and weirder improvisations. To keep it alive. It’s like ranting down a dead telephone, instead of muttering at a human in a chair.
As always – as I have found in shaping interviews for books that I have published – the editor, however pure his intentions, dominates the angle of the response. Your take, here, is the real work. Asking is composing. Like any politician, it is too easy to supply the answers we want to give, disregarding the barbs in the question.
On Lud Heat, taking off from your generous evaluation, the question emerges of Brakhage’s influence on my work. And my answer, such as it is, in trying to recollect the temperature of that moment, when the impetus was still raw, is plainly there in the book: the section inspired by a Brakhage film: ‘Rites of Autopsy, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes... viewed June 10, 1974.’ Autopsies of various sorts, cultural, topographic, literal, are the theme of that book. And Brakhage’s steady gaze was a model to which I aspired.
In my copy of Brakhage’s little black publication, A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book, I have a postcard from the man. It says one word: ‘Blessings’. A benediction I was delighted to receive. It was good to know that Brakhage had seen, and was not alarmed by, my effusion. My speculative response to his autopsy film was one of those things that arrived when it was most needed, and it came fast, with little or no revision, according with laws of composition framed by Jack Kerouac. The book was acquired in Compendium, Camden Town: 8 November 1972. One of the co-dedicatees is Michael McClure. I was fascinated to hear the West Coast poet’s reminiscences of Brakhage when I visited him. An episode touched on in American Smoke.
The film visionary also collaborated with Ed Dorn, one of the major inspirations at the time of Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. The Howard Hughes piece in Suicide Bridge came directly out of Gunslinger. The back-story of Abilene! Abilene!, the Western script Dorn wrote at Brakhage’s invitation, has now been published by The Center for the Humanities, The City University of New York. And is well worth checking out. Dorn’s delighted ruminations on the cultural (and economic) consequences of cattle drives find their way, old influences coming full circle now, into the book I am presently labouring on, The Gold Machine.
Perhaps, at this stage, taking a breath, I should pay particular attention to how Brakhage concludes his book?
Until that maker himself becomes too long exposed to the light of any particular piece of film and, thus, ceases to see it any longer... then, and then only, might a work be called ‘finished’.
It was always about light, light and heat. And browsing, scavenging, cannibalising all available energy sources. In 1963 I got my hands on a copy of Film Culture (Special Issue: American Directors, Part 2), edited by Jonas Mekas. McClure was writing about Brakhage’s Dog Star Man as ‘the first 16mm epic’. I was interested in the idea of ‘open field’ composition – splicing prose, poetry, image, documentation, polemic, genre – into a version of the epic, specifically on a patch of London ground. Brakhage’s association with McClure and the Black Mountain poets was the vital link between the two areas in which I wanted to operate: film and poetry. The silence of his films (as with the films of Maya Deren) was another attraction. But, in this case, the reading came first: letters, fragments of scripts and comments of other filmmakers.
By the mid-sixties, I was catching up with the films themselves. And, fired by what we had seen (as well as by the Mekas notion of a film ‘Diary’ recording accidents of everyday life), I became part of a Hackney group keeping a community 8mm film record, quite intensely, from about 1969 to 1975 (the date of publication of Lud Heat). Some of the films were records of place and activity (using single-frame click-click for reasons of economy) and some were Brakhage-permitted ‘Songs’ (using multiple superimpositions). Elements spilled into the self-published books of that period.
When, on a unique visit to my house, I showed some of these films to Jeremy Prynne, he revealed that he not only knew the work of Brakhage (not surprising, given his nexus of transatlantic friends and correspondents), but had visited him. That was one of the great excitements of the era, how, quite suddenly, everything folded in on itself. And the possibilities seemed infinite.
Following on from, and not unrelated to, Brackhage – I was really interested in asking you a bit about your reading of Robert Duncan at that time. I feel that, unlike Burroughs, the Beats or Charles Olson, Duncan is not as frequently mentioned in relation to your poetry – despite Suicide Bridge (Albion Village Press, 1979) starting with an epigraph from Duncan’s mytho-poetic monolith of musings, The H.D. Book (composed between 1959 and 1964). Were you interested in the artistic links between him and Kenneth Anger’s films? Did you draw any inspiration from the collage art of Duncan’s partner, Jess? How often do you find yourself returning to American poets of this era?
At that time, I read promiscuously, going back to Yeats (who is also quoted in Lud Heat). I’d drawn on the Byzantium poems and other things when I lived in London in 1962, but pulled back when I was in Dublin as a student. He was too loud and too much approved and promoted as a presence in that city. But I picked up on A Vision, alongside serious sampling in Duncan. My Duncan engagement was never as intense as the ongoing binges around Olson, but I continued to dip and snack, zooming in on those aspects you mention, the ‘mytho-poetic monolith of musings’. Eric Mottram often spoke about the audiences Duncan offered, great free-flowing monologues, at his house in Herne Hill. ‘That’s Duncan’s chair!’ he announced as the photographer Marc Atkins was about to settle himself in the wrong place.
I knew a little about the links with Anger. (I shared a Chinese meal with him once in Newcastle.) But I didn’t, back then, make any particular connection with the collage art of Jess. I had the vague and probably unfounded prejudice that there was something enclosed, too hermetic and strategically interior in that scene. But aspects of Duncan’s vaulting ambition and truth-to-vocation were always attractive. The Fulcrum books were usually somewhere at hand.
With your editing of the poetry anthology, Conductors of Chaos (1966), you brought together poets associated with the ‘British Poetry Revival’ as well as an alternative ancestry of British Modernism and Surrealism that included – for example – Nicholas Moore and David Gascoyne. From that period, drawing from Eric Mottram and Bob Cobbing and the activities around bookshops like Better Books, I was wondering how much notable interaction was going on between poets and filmmakers? The relationship between poets and filmmakers in the American avant garde (from Alfred Lesli and Frank O’Hara, Rudy Buckhardt and John Ashbery, Black Mountain and Brackhage/Anger, the poetics of Maya Deren etc) are all well documented…however, a lot more digging needs to be done in order to reach experimental film and poetry interacting in the UK. Do you think this is because ‘English Cinema, which Truffaut claims (with some justification) does not exist’ (from Downriver, 1991) or that simply, far less vocal attention has been paid to these interactions – and they do, in pockets, exist? Were there parallel conductors of chaos in lens and light?
There were jealous interconnections between the various practices, and far less pigeonholing (as you see from Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture [Note: I was reading this at the time of interview]) about where poetry puts up its border fences against film, or performance, or event. This was partly a matter of available venues and outlets. And partly a matter of funding. Only the requirement to solicit some derisory support separated the disciplines. Bureaucracies evolve around the horror of the commissioning process: random personalities or committees set up to make work conform to approved cultural categories. The era defined as the Art of the Proposal. Outside this hideous viral growth, now long past its critical point, there was very little division between film and poetry. A sharp operator like Peter Whitehead was able to identify the Albert Hall poetry readings of 11 June 1965 (chaotic, confused, but ripe for exploitation) as a breakthrough, a period defining event. Whitehead used accidental documentary coverage as a tool for marketing the legend of Wholly Communion as a book as well as a film. You had to wait for the years of VHS and then DVD to have the equivalent of book publication.
Probably The Falconer, a film I made with Chris Petit for Channel 4, covers my attempt to excavate meaning from the argument between film, poetry, myth-making and paranoia. It was possible in the Nineties to interrogate archival footage at the same time as shooting afresh, with the most casual means, and drawing in figures like Kathy Acker and Stephen Rodefer, who happened to be passing through London at the period of editing.
One particular film/poetry conversation that emerged in growing collaboration, between screen and page and between poetry, bookselling, eccentricity, obscurity and memory, has grown between you and Chris Petit in the loose trilogy of TV films made for Channel 4: The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992), The Falconer (1998) and Asylum (2000). Apart from The Cardinal and the Corpse, which is now miraculously marooned on Youtube, the other two are near impossible to track down…much like the ‘reforgotten’ cast of characters, names, books, poets and authors that double, echo and disappear in the trilogy, the films themselves are now rumoured sightings in the conjecture of memory and archive…this observation has already been made (with more eloquence) by Stewart Home (‘Shamen of Discontent and the Mirror People: A Detective Story in Four Acts’, 2000). Could you say a bit about the process of collaborating with Chris Petit? Writers and poets (like Kathy Acker and Ed Dorn) appear throughout, but were there any particular filmic reference-points that inspired you and Chris?
I was lucky to come across Chris Petit at just the moment when it was feasible, a brief interlude of accidental permissions, to find commissions to make films with the adequate editing time (and the technology) that would only have been allowed previously for book publication. I wasn’t really reading Time Out at the period when Petit was film editor, but when I did come across his pieces I enjoyed them. I thought he had good taste (it agreed, in so many ways, with my own). And he wrote well, in a clear and pared-down prose – with attitude (and glints of Ballard and Manny Farber). The notable Petit feature film, Radio On, was released in the same year, 1979, as my endgame collection, Suicide Bridge. To say nothing of the arrival in Downing Street of Mrs Thatcher.
I took the trip to Haverstock Hill to see Radio On. The whole experience felt like time travel, like so many journeys across so many cities in the Sixties and early Seventies. The film was haunting but posthumous, German independent cinema transposed to an English landscape – with a canny jukebox soundtrack. Even at that time, my pleasure in the control displayed by the director, and several moments that equal anything in British cinema, was tinged with a certain melancholy. The skies are falling in. The abiding Petit microclimate is justified alienation, the poetics of ennui promising darker days ahead. Radio On was as much an obituary to ambition as a forerunner of a new kind of place-based essay film. And, inevitably, Petit’s exile (from commissions and, finally, England). When the calls were no longer being taken, there was Petit’s theoretical Museum of Loneliness and a post-film cinema of one-off spectral performances.
My own post-poem poetry (all that ended with Suicide Bridge) was as a compiler of secondhand book catalogues. Petit, researching Soho for a proposed history that became a novel, Robinson, was a customer. We talked on the phone. In many ways, the phone was his natural medium. He could have written a better (screen)play about imaginary conversations than Cocteau.
I had some visibility, having moved into fiction and London explorations, and Chris had the slightly discounted glamour of having delivered four feature films and a TV Miss Marple: we got the gig. After The Cardinal and the Corpse, which really was an obituary of the bounty-hunting used-book trade and the re-forgotten writers who supplied it, Petit had decided to get clear of hired professionals and to do it all himself. We started to drive around, shooting through the window with the freedom of some crazed war-zone veteran, spraying tracer bullets at the landscape. I picked up my 8mm camera. Chris could re-film my footage from the wall of his Archway bunker. Any ambitions towards a Warhol factory or a Fassbinder nest of collaborators (as featured in Robinson) very soon floundered.
The Cardinal and the Corpse is of sentimental interest as the record of a submerged period, between Sixties bohemia and New Labour boosterism, through the metaphor of the booktrade (echoes of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings). The best thing about it is the cast – this confirms your reference to Conductors of Chaos and also to London, City of Disappearances. A good number of our witnesses are now dead: Robin Cook (Derek Raymond), Alexander Baron, Emanuel Litvinoff, John Latham, Tony Lambrianou, Martin Stone, David Seabrook, Pat Goldstein. Mike Moorcock relocated to Texas (and a future appearance in Asylum). Alan Moore and Brian Catling, already respected figures among and beyond their peers, rose to new levels of prominence. But I’m glad the film can now be viewed.
I’m not quite sure why – questions of music rights, lack of interest from producers, and Chris’s preference for letting the myth cook without easy access – but the more achieved pieces, The Falconer and Asylum have only emerged at random screenings. On the cusp of lockdown, Asylum was projected in a former postal warehouse in Brussels, to an audience of about fifteen. London Orbital, on a loop, was playing mute in the oval panel of a glass door. Petit approved: ‘That’s the ideal version.’
Both those films drew on significant collaborators: Bruce Gilbert (sound-gleanings and drone-composition), Dave McKean (animations) and Emma Matthews as editor. And visual conscience. Emma’s contribution was vital. She lived with the footage, revising and refining. To say nothing of being required to do sound-recording and play a part in Asylum. For this period, the subterranean methods of the Sixties resurfaced in a new form. I think we could have taken this push further, but it was too late. It was always too late. Asylum had a secondary title: The Final Commission.
I don’t think we were drawing on any particular film references, but on all film references. A long dialogue – movie gossip and other topics, including football and food – as we travelled around. We did view Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. But we were just as taken with a category of unnoticed dump-bin films that had some indefinable quality that made them worth looking at, part of a more complex story involving accidents of funding and production. Films like Budd Boetticher’s A Time for Dying.
I was moved, seeing Asylum again in Brussels, with the virus at the door, to watch and hear from Ed Dorn – even though, by the time we filmed him, he was quite frail and on heavy medication. Maybe that was the high point of the whole series, catching a glimpse of someone who could, in another place and time, have had a major film presence. Meanwhile, we can contemplate the Abilene! Abilene! screenplay – and imagine what Brakhage could have done with it.
You wrote a short book on David Cronenberg’s Crash (BFI, 1999) which perhaps draws more on Ballard and the publishing history of the book than Cronenberg’s (re)vision of the text…I was wondering if you could say a bit more about Cronenberg’s vision of Naked Lunch? And also, whether, to return to the mention of Mario Bava in Lud Heat, you have ever taken much of an interest in the more psychotronic, bizarre horror or ‘exploitation’ genre films that litter the overlooked and dank alleys of cinema’s underground? There is a point in Lud Heat, where you list Roger Corman alongside Scientology and Manson Hole Visions…this question, apologies, is bundling together without much clarity…so, to attempt a vague order: could you say a bit about the formative influence of Burroughs in relation to film, and whether you find much interest or inspiration in the more budget and bizarre ‘exploitation’ films that proliferated from the late 60s and through to the 80s of video nasties?
I think I covered my original take on genre, exploitation, Scientology, Manson, Howard Hughes in three places: the deranged polemic of ‘The Horse. The Man. The Talking Head’ from Suicide Bridge and the riff on Michael Reeves, as part of ‘Cinema Purgatorio’ in Lights Out for the Territory (1997). But most thoroughly in a favourite book that never achieved visibility: 70 x 70. Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014). Here was a record of well-wasted hours and a task laid on me to curate seventy films (one for each birthday). The notion came from Paul Smith, who had also been responsible, down the years, for fixing many unlikely performances, exhibitions, CDs and LPs. From Subversion in the Street of Shame (at the Bridewell Theatre) to The House of the Last London (Gallery 46, Whitechapel). 70 x 70 was handsomely designed by Slim Smith and copiously illustrated. I think it answers most of the film questions you have set me. And it’s still available from King Mob.
I felt, as I suggested in the BFI Crash monograph, that it was always a mistake to try and deliver a mainstream translation of a work like Naked Lunch. You could emply a number of strategies in the spirit of the underground film poets already mentioned. One exemplary assemblage (with built-in obsolescence) was the film made by Stanley Schtinter (another Petit collaborator) around the personality and myths of Brion Gysin. This was a set of fragments, never to be completed or given a definitive form, and reliant on obscure screenings, misinformation and the hit-and-run of commissioning politics. (Paul Smith was again a lurking magus.) I think I have a ghostly part somewhere in this madness. But, like the river, you’ll never enter the same screening twice. I think Schtinter has got it right, as the last non-paying member of a comprehensively theoretical (and disbanded) underground. The last avant-garde.
I’ve written too much about Burroughs – American Smoke etc – to add anything fresh now. But he’s always there, for sure. Like seasonal flu. The Tangerine Press reissue of Blade Runner: A Movie was the necessary starting gun for the present viral crisis. Burroughs, like Ballard, always wrote the future in the present tense, and unmasked the past as a set of cosmic conspiracies.
I have to return to that breath-taking section from Suicide Bridge: ‘THE HORSE. THE MAN. THE TALKING HEAD. (a note on Howard Hughes)’. This has to be one of the most feverish poetic incantations of American culture from a poet outside of America that I’ve ever encountered. The apocalyptic rhythms of Ginsberg’s Howl slither into the visionary paranoia of Burroughs; a contagion of language and image, of persona, star, conspiracy and madness, plumbing the glamorous gutters of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon via Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger…it is an incredibly powerful piece. Can you remember the momentum of writing that piece? It feels so infectiously alive with ideas, breathlessly overrunning prose to poetry, to prose-poetry and a tacit dismissal of the need to distinguish or categorise. No time to stop for labels. Just the blurring of connections. Was the inspiration tied to research as poetry, in the watching of films and following leads? Or was there something very particular to the life of Howard Hughes that broke into that energy for you?
That Howard Hughes rant in Suicide Bridge was so much of a rush for me, voices drowning out other voices, that I knew it had to be the end of something. When I was asked at a local gathering, shortly after the book had been published, ‘What comes next?’ I said, without thinking: ‘Nothing. That’s it.’ Which turned out, in some ways, to be true. That was the finish of a chapter and there was quite a gap, taken up with book-dealing and driving around the country, before I got my head ready for the next tentative start. After doing something to which a few people could relate, like Lud Heat, I always managed to push the next one towards areas in which nobody wanted to travel without protective masks. Radon Daughters following on from decent coverage for Downriver was much the same. Although a few smart or perverse readers – like William Gibson, Mike Moorcock, Alan Moore, and, later, China Miéville – offered support, maybe through the posthumous connection with William Hope Hodgson and The House on the Borderland (now reissued in a nice edition by Swan River Press in Dublin). But Radon Daughters has gone, one of the reforgotten.
The Hughes piece was one of those rare occasions when the dictation comes faster than you can take it down. I had no sense of a potential readership and that was never an issue: I let rip. The trigger had been various pulp accounts of Hughes and, of course, Gunslinger and Dorn’s fabulous conceit of the ‘Literate Projector’.
And get this
They can distort the Projector
so that the script Departs
from the film, in Front
The point is it has to be read
to be seen, and like if the accent
is so incomprehensible and hysterical
it can only be coming from inside
the cinerama of the 3rd Reich
youre just not supposed to hear it.
There are a few special feverish times when these pieces happen, very quickly, after years of slow cooking and scattergun reading. The Hawksmoor essay was a bit like that, in a freezing Dorset bedroom, gloves on, after the summer of gardening and sneezing in Wapping and Shadwell and Tower Hamlets.
And, more recently, when I had the commission from Mike Goldmark to visit the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, to provide a text to sit alongside photographs taken by Ian Wilkinson. Our Late Familiars has a more stuttering momentum, plenty of overlapping voices and elements (Greta Garbo, Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, Roussel, Freud, Lucky Luciano), but long delay in coming to publication, tinkering on my part, and the sense of writing for somebody’s else inspiration, hobbled the finished product. Paranoid-critical derangement isn’t always available. Maybe it fades with age, in mirror image, as we become more susceptible to viral invasion.
Towards the end of John Roger’s documentary, London Overground (2016), we encounter a kind of ‘behind the scenes’ footnote to Andrew Kötting’s film, Edith Walks (2016), in which Andrew describes your conversational company on walks as ‘contagious and inspiring’. Since Swandown (2012), you have been a constant presence in Andrew’s films. Could you say a bit about how your collaborative relationship with Andrew has developed over time? How would you describe the difference between this and your films with Chris Petit? They seem to tap into very different energies. And also, does your involvement with these projects ever prompt the desire to return behind the camera and to make more of your own films (in line perhaps with Maggot Street or the Hackney 8mm Diary Films)?
I think the story of the collisions and collaborations with Andrew has been told a number of times. I was asked to review Gallivant. I loved it. Kötting, making a Thames voyage film of his own, was persuaded to read Downriver. He didn’t get on with it at all. Too many words. And in the wrong order. He melted a little when I read him a site-specific section, about disasters and drownings, as we pedalled around the Isle of Grain on a plastic swan. We coincided in St Leonards-on-Sea, began a conversation over several walks and fell into numerous projects. They felt like Saga Adventure Holidays for me. In good company. I bombarded Andrew with potential film ideas and he went his own way. He took up ventures I had cooked, unsuccessfully for years, like the Clare walk (after Edge of the Orison) and the return of Dilworth’s whalebone box to the Isle of Harris. But the final shape of these films was all his own: Andrew just locked himself away in his hut, inside a sail-maker’s loft, in Hastings. And cranked up the heating. And he layered sound. And nibbled at shape and structure. And raided archive. By email and in conversation, I made suggestions for him to ignore. The films with Chris Petit were authentic collaborations. We had pretty much equal authorship. With Kötting they are, finally, all his. But his crew, blistered and battered, come back for more. The payoff is that I’ve been able to exploit him as a louder than life caricature in my books.
The collaborative walks with John Rogers have been a sidebar to this. John is remarkably painless to work with, the technology never gets in the way. And he is so easy on both sides of the camera. In a civilised world, he’d be given his own TV channel.
Following The Last London (2017), and in the current process of writing The Gold Machine – a kind of familial quest in retracing a journey through Peru – I was wondering whether you are watching any Peruvian cinema? In starting the exploration for a new work, do you look out for films that can be involved, or do they naturally involve themselves as the project unfolds? Have there been any films you have seen recently that have particularly interested you?
I am truly haunted and possessed by the writing and researching of The Gold Machine. It has been the ideal task for this strange suspended period, when the ghosts are more visible at the edge of things. I am pushing towards the point, geographical and metaphorical, when the séance of writing brings me into direct contact with my great-grandfather. A whole library of books have fed into this. Too many to list now. Early viewings, the obvious things, became less significant as the story progressed. Herzog and films about Herzog. Apocalypse Now. Many abortive attempts at translations of Conrad. I thought Dennis Hopper’s Peruvian madness, The Last Movie, would have a role. But it belongs somewhere else. I don’t believe that I’ll live long enough – or be free to make the required journeys – for a dream project called Mabuse in Mexico. (Lined up as a fated successor to Suicide Bridge and Radon Daughters. For my equivalent of the Video dump-bin.)
The most helpful viewing was a return to Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent. And, as a bizarre take (which I needed for one section) on a dynamite priest (Robert Mitchum): Ralph Nelson’s The Wrath of God. (Not easy to find. Sourced from Australia.) I also watched, with enjoyment but less engagement, the Netflix series with which Guerra was involved, Frontera Verde.