In Conversation with Iain Sinclair
Matthew Stocker: I honestly didn’t know how to open this interview, then yesterday I was in a restaurant with my children and wife and I spotted beside many bits of Joyce paraphernalia a quote;
“I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
In Agents of Oblivion, Dublin is mentioned once or twice in passing, but with regards London do you see yourself undertaking the same type of project as Joyce attempted for Dublin?
Iain Sinclair: Dublin wrote Joyce into existence. The city identified its ideal scribe at the optimum moment when the solid structures and achievements of nineteenth-century fiction were ready to be absorbed into the permissions of high modernism. Those special theories of everything hovering over the sweat and stink and chatter. Joyce, as the chosen instrument, had to be expelled, forced to carry out his epic sequence of masterworks at a safe distance. Whatever the cost. Whatever the collateral rewards. Poverty, vanity, a Swiss grave. He gave everything to become—the horror of it!—a cultural resource. A brand. Municipal real estate pimped for cultural tourism. But he links very neatly with the Protestant austerity of Beckett. The one who could revise and refine the task, strip it down, and carry it away from the choking rituals, the provincialism, and the heady particulars of a mesmerising and Oedipal port city.
Living for four years in Dublin was the best possible preparation for appreciating that London could never be excavated in that way. London was not a project for me. It was the curse that never stops giving. A Faustian contract to be worked out through fortunate collaborations, in poetry, film, performance, pilgrimage. Pulling away from London gravity was never successful. Those books were barely noticed or permitted. The point was to live there, to begin with the first step outside my Hackney door. To dig in, to stay. To honour characters who presented themselves and demanded a cameo.
Stocker: The book, Agents of Oblivion, is dedicated to B. Catling and he appears within the text alongside a plethora of other literary giants. I was saddened to read of his passing, I really enjoyed The Vorrh trilogy and Munky (published by Swan River Press, also illustrated by McKean); it makes a lovely companion with Agents.
Why Blackwood, Machen, Ballard, and Lovecraft? Writers/characters such as Brian and Alan Moore and Steve Moore (no relation) play almost a bigger role as travellers through the textuality.
Sinclair: Again, it felt as if those writers, with their own haunting characteristics—writers much more implicated in generic tropes than Joyce—were authentic witnesses and contributors to the weave of London mythology. Reading them, they nudge the pen. They whisper.
They have laid out the model. But it is not finished, never finished. Their words remain contemporary. They are our psychic landscape as much as Woolwich or Farringdon Road or Northolt.
The characters from our own times, like Alan Moore, Brian Catling, and Steve Moore, have doubled identities. They shape worlds, they mine extraordinary language reserves—and they also share experiences that I can subvert or celebrate. As ever: “The living can assist the imaginations of the dead.” And vice versa. Those writers know how to take the dictation and how to exploit it. They pass on the obligations of attentive readership. They pilot the future.
Stocker: Does the book serve a double purpose, on one side to be read/enjoyed/absorbed in its own right, but also as a reading list for the initiate to dive into? As a syllabus, I have been racking my mind as to what the course would be called.
Sinclair: It is my reading list at the time of writing these stories, a period of a few months. It is not a pitch for an established academic discipline. Nobody is required to locate and absorb every referenced figure. I haven’t read those books at an examination pitch. I dipped and pecked and reached out for the shelves when things were flagging.
I should say that the stories were put together in a posthumous dialogue with Brian Catling. And as a companion piece to Munky, the novella he published with Swan River. That also came with perfectly sympathetic drawings by Dave McKean. It was Catling who pointed me towards Blackwood and the John Silence stories the first time I visited his family home, off the Old Kent Road. He was also, in the late 1960s, a devourer of Lovecraft. I heard many stories of Ballard and the era of New Worlds from Mike Moorcock. I appreciated that lineage, what passed down from Moorcock, Ballard, Angela Carter to Alan Moore and Catling. They tapped the fabric of London as London prodded them.
Brian was responding, to his last breath. He projected a fourth volume of The Vorrh, in parallel with Surreycide, a questing return to the mythology of a rubbled childhood among the tenements and canals of Camberwell. That city, that time. The museums lying in wait as he rode in a London bus alongside his adopted father. Because it was always the boy who chose his parent. Who recognised and teased the inheritance from William Blake.
Stocker: You appear to take the reader on a journey linking author after author and their works, it goes beyond intertextuality. It feels like a ghost story, the writers you write about haunt the places and live on in both their writing and the landscape (I should note not all the characters are dead—Alan Moore for one).
While the literary/film characters of the book fill the pages, it is the peppering in of people like William Lyttle that add an extra dimension to your writing. (Less of a question and more calling out an aspect I loved. On second reading, I sat with Google by my side and fell down many enjoyable/educational rabbit holes, was that your intention?) That kind of interplay between a text and the digital world didn’t exist twenty years ago—what, if any, impact do you think that has had on your writing?
Sinclair: Not much. Beyond the convenience of checking dates and facts, with frequently unreliable results. Sometimes—as with the walking films of John Rogers on YouTube—I find inspiration, confirmation. In general, the digital world is a swamp. Easier to drown than swim.
Stocker: As you write, do you start with a map to the journey you take the reader on both with regards the physical places you bring them and the writers that inhabit them? Or is it a chain of events, one naturally leading to the other as you wrote?
Sinclair: I don’t know how “natural” the process is. But there is no pecking order: maps are usually involved, but I might not consult them until the walks are done. And those maps tend to be so old that they have the charm of fiction. Key buildings and sites have vanished. The latest interventions are not yet admitted. The Secret State redacts inconvenient military installations, pharmaceutical and “experimental” facilities. London documentation has to ooze through the cracks in forbidden zones. There is a perpetual struggle to outperform CGI boasts and projections. Writing is a dangerous negotiation. You pay a price to be admitted to the game.
Stocker: The artwork in the book is phenomenal, I am an avid fan of Dave McKean. (Loved your previous collaboration, Slow Chocolate Autopsy) How does that process work, how does the end product gel with the imagery in your head as you write?
Sinclair: Dave has a preternatural gift for fine-tuning his imagery to the extravagant conceits of my prose. In practical terms, as I discovered from the start, with Slow Chocolate Autopsy and London Orbital, the best way forward was to send Dave a bunch of my research snapshots—places, characters, and incidents from which the fiction took off. Dave has that classic Victorian or Edwardian gift of catching the lineaments of character and exaggerating them to achieve a higher truth.
He would do what you wanted, what you pre-imagine—and then much more. I did not for a moment conceive of the range of illustrations he would extract from Agents of Oblivion. What he delivered made it a different and richer book, a graphic novella.
Dave’s animated interventions boosted the films I made for Channel 4 with Chris Petit. There was an unforgettable moment in The Falconer when he finessed a vampiric Hammer Films seizure out of an overheated television interview Peter Whitehead conducted with a Norwegian woman, when he talked about cohabiting with raptors.
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Matthew Stocker, a graduate of the English Department of Trinity College Dublin and occasional storyteller, lives under the kitchen table and tells stories for food.