The temptation is to write in his style:‘Incidents and inspirations, passports to unknown destinations..’ but temptations post the snake smeared apple, are there to be resisted and the true aim was to walk in his shadow, if only briefly. And on a fresh Tuesday evening in February 2016, starting at 10.30pm at the corner of Finchley Road and Frognal, that’s what I was able to do, fulfilling a long sought for personal ambition.
What is it about writing and writers that excites and engages us? Surely, the basic ignition of idea and style that is able to transport the reader and appreciator, from the day they currently inhabit, offering a glimpse of alternative worlds and viewpoints. The Writer at their best is a shaman, capable of inducing and intoxicating the reader with the necessary means of exit and transformation. Iain Sinclair does this constantly in his seminal poetry, novels and masterpieces of psychogeography, and to the extent that all of his books become maps of both practise and imagination, primed by new directives and intentions. Having met at a poetry recital dedicated to David Gascoyne, Iain invited me to join him and his friend and constant collaborator, Andrew Kotting on their latest venture; a continuation of work already charted in his book, London Overground – A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line.
This book is the latest (of two) missives from Iain and our walk that evening took the form of a nocturnal alternative, a flipside to the blazing enterprise and daylit reverie previously charted, detailing the expansion of the new overground trainline as it marks and passes the vestiges of London’s Olympic legacy.
Sinclair and Kotting are Quixotes of the artistic and literary spirit, differing from the tragic-comedy of that model through the sharpness of their own investigations. Dividing his time between London, Hastings and a home in the Pyrenees, Kotting is also a contemporary proto-Hercules, taking on massive physical labours in order to complete the task, whether it is wrestling with the London river system to ensure his Swan pedaloe reached its destination in his film with Sinclair, Swandown, or enabling the journey of his daughter Eden and Grandmother, Gladys’ trek around England in his film Gallivant. Andrew talked of his nightly trails through the mountains of Europe, forging on into darkness and embracing the unexpected, even in what had become partly familiar terrain, and as he powered on ahead, matched by Iain and I hope my own short-arsed pedestrianism, his heroic status remained secure. The victim of a recent shocking road accident, and the bearer of a nasty hole in his leg, Kotting is an Art Warrior of the highest order. These men both literally and artistically walk the walk and talk the talk, their money placed firmly where their mouths are, spent wisely as they plan and plough they way through the city. Unlike many practitioners they are their work in all meanings and/or senses of the word, testing their limits and speculations breath by breath and step by step, authenticating every thought and image. Their humour, openness and humanity blaze through. I had worried about interrupting the rhythm and flow not only of the night long walk from Haggerston in the east to the far reaches of South London and back, but also of their friendship, but both men were as welcoming and as generous as you would wish and want them to be.
To paraphrase Peter Cook’s famous embodiment of Harold Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe: ‘We talked of many things’ from the nature of London and the need to perhaps not summon its past but certainly measure its changes, to the mysteries of the disappearing bookseller, Driffield, through to the mystical, kabbalistic Seven; the ancient guides there to be encountered by the flaneur and pyschogeographer on their nightly pilgrimages. Harold Pinter and Heathcote Williams loomed large, as they often do in my conversation, as did Iain’s other brother in collaboration, Chris Petit, who achieves by the driven mile what Sinclair and Kotting do on foot. Petit’s seminal film, Radio On is a touchstone for many an independent film-maker, but slightly less well known are his novels, the first of which, Robinson, is up there in my opinion with Iain’s Downriver as the last word on the London spirit and first word in fresh ways of telling stories and reinvigorating modern prose.
Here then, are men at the forefront of standards that are not recognised by the mainstream, and while they would never wish to succumb to it, in being located somewhere between cult artists of the highest rank and ‘muses for the masses’ (if they could only forsake their trend sodden blinkers) it strikes me that their work is offered in the spirit of all great innovators, in that they are marking the borders of a new field of enterprise and it has to be said, endeavour, showing where Art,Film and Literature can go in order to advance the culture. Grand claims I know and any misrepresentations of purpose are my fault and opinion entirely but it seemed to me as I walked, that Iain and Andrew are clearly charting new forms of practise. Each walk and trip they take is a new film or book in its own right, and while the film maker John Rogers is compiling footage of the trip under separate cover, the three hours I shared with them were a limited edition I will always prize. If I never get to do it again, the brief connection will be treasured and if I do, then the reading of breath and atoms between these two friends and artists will people a new library.
The evening was a series of reports from a front line determined by the overground stations, but it was subject to much conjecture and rumination. At each stop, (West Hampstead, Kilburn, Kensal Rise, Willesden Junction etc), Iain captured Andrew in comic poses and while discussing the progress of the Arsenal – as Samuel Beckett once did with friends of mine – along with their separate histories, and collaborators such as Alan Moore, Brian Catling, Etruscan book’s Nick Johnson and numerous others, I was hosted, consulted and taken interest in.
Jewish cemetaries played a large part in the conversation, from the discovery of one close to Iain’s home in Hackney, to the granderies of Kensal Rise where Harold Pinter’s personal silence is held. Along the marathon like residential road to Willesden, Andrew realised we would pass the home of a good friend of his and I witnessed the formulation of the kind of artistic Christmas that I in my semitic baraclava could only dream of: Iain and Andrew are book magnets and finding a discarded box of unwanted novels signed and dated one and posted it through the friend’s front door. It was approaching midnight and perhaps too late to rouse the suburbs unduly, so imagine waking to find an important friend’s hello wrapped in papered spine and words. A throwaway item was rendered invaluable, not only through the bearing of eminent signatures, but also through a true and touching sentiment.
Kotting’s a hugger on the grand scale, a great bear of warmth and vitality and someone who makes you feel a friend, even if only for the moment you’re talking to him, so observing this small idea from impulse to execution reminded me of what real goodness is; the simple exchange of offers and information, bridges over the communal divide.
Since the death of my beloved Mother, Lilian, and the long felt loss of my father, Tommy, I’m someone without a family. A consequence of this is a somewhat bewildering sense of solitude, even among my many friends and an independence that is both daunting and inspiring. I have over the last few years been able to work with and get to know many of my heroes so this simple exercise in friendship touched me greatly. Ours is a barbaric age in the ways and means with which we forsake community and connection and while culture and the arts are often prey to their own insularities and elitism, the scope of some people’s work is undeniable. Am I wrong to make so much of a small and simple gesture? I don’t believe so, as these are the moments and acts that stand out at a time when few are interested in helping and seeing others’ work, beyond the nose and limits of their own nepotism.
What strikes you most about these two men is their intense interest in the forces they come into contact with. They are proponents and supporters of other artists whose work and aims collide with theirs and are passionate observers of the cultural climate. Whether its Andrew in the Mountains or Iain on the Avenue, here are men capturing and encountering the city in ways that most of us couldn’t begin to appreciate. There was a delicious moment as we approached White City where an in-progress development site took on the full dimensions of a Ballardian city-scape and we conjectured how the much missed JG would have relished seeing it. At night, entire sections of the city resemble caged hybrids of beast and machine with the half closed eyes or ransacked or part made structures stir with a barely repressed violence. The sounds of occasional passing traffic are stabs and jabs from an orchestral needle and everywhere and everything anticipates the storm. Whether it is meteorlogical or social, change and the potential for change lay coiled in an uneasy silence and only Sinclair and Kotting are there to document it. Of the rest of us, none of us know where we are. I’m sure that’s the case in most large cities, certainly in the west. As a lifelong London native of small revenue, I do not always indulge in what the city has to offer and remain within my own small limit.
Many’s the night when I witness the hoi gloriously polloi-ing while I seek comfort in my singular tread, and then of course there are the visitations to numerous bright planets and principalities, but it is Iain Sinclair who teaches us how to truly value our metropolis, by walking and writing it down, reflecting the stories and experiences he has witnessed with a journalists flair, leavened by his skills as Poet and Novelist. Through the pictorial and imagistic approach of his writing; he makes true London Art, separate to the self congratulatory Shoreditch and Soho-ites, turning the city into its own novel, gallery and bookstall. To extend the analogy a little further, he conducts a London tinged symphony, corralling voices and themes, no doubt fuguing them also, all to make a body of work as dense and reflective as it is generous and deftly designed. Sinclair dares the reader to take part, to consider the consequences of his or her actions. To question purpose and place. To, in all senses, understand and unravel the poetry of practise and belief. He unearths the possible through his artistic and political diligence and through the literary conceits of summoning the ghosts of writers and faces he’s known, from William Blake, to the Krays, through the ghosts of David Litvinoff and Derek Raymond, down on through to the practices of Leon Kossoff and Arthur Machen, and the contemporary work of Brian Catling, assosciates of the Swedenborg Institute and current Baron of cool, Stewart Lee.
Both Iain and Andrew have accomplished what many of us fail to do; they know, if not why they are here, then what they are supposed to do while they wait to find out, which is to chase, confront and question the limits and standards we have set for ourselves in all aspects of modern living. These are men who hold no truck with Godot’s procrastination. They would instead tear the trousers from Estragon’s legs and march him and Vladimir firmly onto the road. They wish, with a child like enthusiasm, to experience each moment and to measure its value as they do so. The night is perhaps as physically delicious to them as the prospect of encountering it, and no doubt as satisfying as the full English that awaits them at journeys end. These are men of 58 and 71 who have more life and power than the children who slouch as low as their bollock free trousers will permit them. As practitioners, they are as visceral as the work they create together and in separation. As you linger in the corners of your own hour, Sinclair and Kotting are out there past midnight, slowly relabeling time.
I salute them.
As you sit there tonight with your wine and/or television, imagine them walking, reintroducing themselves to the sources of their own fascination. There are new ways to read and new ways to experience film, whether its through the expansive form of Andrew’s Swandown, By Ourselves and Acumen, or Iain and Chris Petit’s London Orbital, or Iain’s early portrait of Allen Ginsberg in Ah! Sunflower, or any one of his books. The drive and generosity of their work, coupled with the challenges presented by it, enables the appreciator to become part of the project. Sinclair’s readers become the authors of their own understanding as does Kotting’s viewers. These are books and films as food for the foot and the soul. Walk with them while reading, recall them as you watch and you will be rewarded beyond the simple and passive consumption we usually expect as receivers. Ape the dedication and enthusiasm these men show to the smallest extent and you will be truly evolving the form. At some point, as Iain said to me, it will be upto someone else to continue the rigourous documentation of change or devolution he has started. Let that be you in both the reading you do and the questioning it engenders. Listen to the future, now. It is building. At the present time, we are tuning but the base notes are there in the past.
As Kensal Rise gave way to Willesden we found a small park with trees of our own to piss across. For that brief time the simple pleasures offered by life and biology were crowned with a singular glory. Trousers secured, and after the two men had brandied and joked, Iain gave me a piece of his Kendal mint cake. It tasted, not of victory (I detected no Apocalypse that night!), but of rejuvenation, not only of my own outlook, but of general possibility. As we arrived at White City, Andrew asked a pair of jobsworth Westfield cleaners if we could walk through that glazed palace of disrepute through to the primordial pleasures of Shepherd’s Bush Green. Denied, I had to steer them through the endless Bus lane to the promised point, endangering my Kotting hug. It was a rite of passage I hope I passed, if not at the time then in reflection. At 1am I left them to return by Nightbus to my Uxbridge home. I watched them as they pressed on towards the dawn, the creators of a new day we should all wake to; one of promise and progression, in which the limits set by our own feet are no longer the barriers to our perception. At Kensal Green we peered over a railway bridge to gaze at the stabled mastodons of iron and rust. I felt the flame of happiness. I had in those three hours bettered the darknesses I had brought upon myself and already my spirits had started to rise.
Now, reader, you too, should walk on.
David Erdos 9/3/16