Sunday, 23 October 2016

On the road to Barrow: cultural criticism and creative writing

Image from:
I've just changed the subtitle of this blog to 'science fiction in the cultural field', to reflect my methods and also the rather wandering nature of this blog over the last few years. A broader sense of cultural production has always been where I've come from critical, rather than a 'literature' enthusiast, student,  scholar, critic. My first degree, at the University of Warwick, was on English and American literature but contained courses on Culture and Society, Film Studies and US society and culture 1955-65. (I followed up the latter by moving to take an MA in American Studies at UEA a couple of years later.) My PhD, on American dystopias of the 50s and 60s, was resolutely culturalist. My first full-time teaching job was as a lecturer in film and media; then I moved to teach literature and film; and in my current job I teach and lecture on a wide range of courses.

One of the lovely things about teaching at my current university is that we're a department of literature and creative writing. Though there are sometimes tensions between the two disciplines, I have great working relationships and friendships with my colleagues and this developed, a couple of years ago, into a collaboration with the novelist Jenn Ashworth, whose novel Fell has recently been published to great acclaim. Jenn has taught a course on Writing and New Media and, because of my interests in this area, we discussed this, and I've subsequently developed a new course along those lines (with more of a bent towards experimental writing) at Master's level.

A few years ago now I developed a particular interest in twitter fiction, and wrote about it. I also wrote my own sf twitter narrative called 'Shiva', which can be found archived here and which I also wrote a post about. 'Shiva' is narrated from the point of view of an AI, which is something I'll pick up in another post in the next couple of days. Because of some of these things (and some critical/creative writing on Ballard that Jenn liked) she asked me to participate in an online narrative project called 'The Barrow Rapture', about a character returning to that town to find it abandoned after a rapture event. I was really privileged to work with Jenn, Tom Fletcher and Beth Ward on this project, an interactive narrative written by Jenn, Tom and myself with Beth's lovely artwork. You can find it, and choose your paths through it, here.

One of the really illuminating things about The Barrow Rapture was finding out about the processes of writing and collaboration, particularly to do with creative practice. It was also terrific to be accepted as a peer and collaborator by very talented people. Following on from this, I've begun a different collaborative project, making films with another colleague (in Film Studies), Bruce Bennett, whose name has been taken, not in vain, in these posts occasionally. I'll write something about this very soon.

Literature academics aren't always easy collaborators, no matter that their metier is (or should be) sharing and communicating their research materials in a variety of forms - lectures, teaching, articles, books, blogs etc. It was always a gap in my own practice, but I was very pleased recently when another colleague called me a 'natural collaborator' (in the positive sense - I think). Like many things to do with my relation to academia, it's learned rather than natural, but pushing myself to do these things has been stimulating and rewarding in dark cultural and political times.

And so we circle back to cultural criticism, to cultural politics and practice. My interest and engagement in creative work is an extension of my inquisitiveness, my desire to find out about things and how they work, to try different approaches, but also my interest in the processes and politics of cultural production and of communication. I'm interested in 'zine and cassette culture, in Super 8 film-making, in punk and post-punk, in artists and makers doing it themselves, seizing the means of production. This blog is a minor form of that, but over time it became more work, and I stopped doing it.

Looking back over the blog posts, certain ideas or threads connect up and recur, and this has always been part of how I go about things (retrospection is no good for planning ahead, of course): I move intuitively and later I see how seemingly disparate things were really connected. The next couple of posts will explore those connections a bit further.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

What happens next

Let's be honest, I've let this blog slip a bit over the last year or so. In previous years I've posted about once every three or 4 weeks, but I didn't post much in 2015 and nothing until September this year. Partly it's because of time, and partly it's because, as a writing project, the blog has been very successful, though not in the ways I anticipated. I started it up to support my science fiction classes I teach at university, and to help in trying out some thoughts on a book I was writing (the Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism in Science Fiction, which came out in 2014, but took me an age to complete for a variety of reasons.) It only marginally helped with both, but became a kind of try-out zone, with several of the posts eventually being written up in longer, more academic pieces for journal and book publication and for talks and conference papers. So, a post on Interstellar became a talk I age at the University of Edinburgh and a conference paper; one on Malick's The Tree of Life became a book chapter which will be out by the end of this year; one on Modernist Morecambe became a conference paper and then a chapter on Quadrophenia; and a series of posts on Alien and Prometheus informed a chapter in my latest book on masculinities.

Because I've done all this academic writing, I haven't the time or the energy to blog. But it has struck me that there are several pieces of work that I haven't referred to here that are worth rounding up, which I will do over the next week or so. I'm hoping this will kick-start me into a new round of activity.

I noted that I'd had 10,000 page views back in 2013, and now this blog has over 50,000. Small beer, maybe, but I thank everyone who has checked out my posts and thoughts over the years. Due to my inactivity I must have lost a fair few readers, so I'm hoping to make up a bit of time.

Here, then, is an article on Michael Bay's The Island, based on a blog post from August 2013, and used to draw up an academic article which was published in Senses of Cinema last year. It's a bit long, and much denser than the kind of thing I post here, but I quite like it (more than some). It's called 'The Cinema Within'. And it looks lovely.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Speaking Out and Up: me, the university and the community

Ok, this is hard to put into words. Ever since Brexit, xenophobia and racism have become mainstream discourses. This we know. Theresa May’s government is set on a ‘hard’ exit from the EU which will be economically damaging and culturally toxic, turning England into an inward-looking, nostalgic, isolated backwater. Friends and colleagues have been horrified by these events, especially those who are resident here but not UK nationals. I don't feel at home in the UK myself, so I can only guess at their feelings. Last night, a Polish woman was apparently booed on BBC Question Time for expressing these feelings, an audience who don't want to know about the pain their xenophobia is causing. I live in Wales and would dearly love for Wales to become independent (even though I was born, raised and educated in England and still work there) from an England and Englishness whose public sphere has been systematically undermined and poisoned over decades, so now The Sun – proven liars over Hillsborough and many other things – has liberty to attack Gary Lineker for ‘spreading lies’ about (i.e. showing compassion towards) refugees. It feels as though we’re one step from the Children of Men film.

I’ve seen on Twitter many calls for the 48%, or for those even who voted Leave, to stand up against this increasingly visible racism and xenophobia. Academia should be one of the biggest voices: universities are international institutions, wanting and needing to attract staff and students from across the globe, whose communities must be inclusive and progressive. This week’s news stories about international students being counted as ‘migrants’ is an urgent symptom of the universities’ failure to do so. But this isn't just to do with the economic viability, or even the social or economic life of the university (as a community rather than an institution). It’s do with what the university thinks it is for.

I work in a department of English (literature) and Creative Writing in a 1960s university that appears in the top 10 or so in all the league tables. You might think we would be strong enough, robust enough, to be able to add our voice to the resistance to racism, to xenophobia. Our department has fantastic international contacts and some of my colleagues do great work in Africa and the Middle East and elsewhere and I admire and respect that enormously. But what about here, in the UK? What’s our role? Shouldn’t we be vigorously defending the ideas and ideals on which the very concept of the university is founded?

This past week we had a departmental meeting. We discussed the Stern report, the changes in what will be the next Research Excellence Framework (the audit of our published work which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about student recruitment (which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about how we might change or improve our programme to make it more attractive. But when a colleague raised the point about the ethical implications of changes to research funding in the UK, and the folding of International Development monies into the university research budget, the question wasn’t really understood.

And thinking about it afterwards, I wish I’d been sharp enough to say something then. It was at the end of a long, 3-hour meeting in a stuffy room and my mind wasn’t as focused as it should have been. Because the ethics of what we are doing is precisely what we should be talking about. Not just ‘how to attract students’ but ‘how does the department work in relation to its community/ locality/ region’. Not ‘how can we internationalize our work’ but ‘what is the role of the department and the university, in international contexts, in an increasingly xenophobic and racist political discourse in the UK’.

And it’s easy to see why we don’t discuss this. We’re really busy, and the pressures of REF and the coming Teaching Excellence Framework are felt by us, as individuals, and as a department every day. But this instrumentalisation (in an increasingly corporate environment, the university’s own response to the shifting political and economic environment) is corrosive. We don't think of the bigger picture, because we’re too focused on the day-to-day, in implementing new university initiatives which are largely to do with maintaining its position in those league tables I mentioned, let alone the things that are great about the job: teaching and supervising students, and sometimes doing your own research and writing. We don't talk about it because in departmental meetings we are discussing all this instrumental and administrative stuff, and we don't have time to meet as a group outside of those times.

But it’s wrong.

So what do I/ we do about it? The first thing is, of course to talk about it. Something we signally failed to do this week. To make it visible, to speak up. To make sure we do discuss it, that it informs what we do, so we aren’t always speaking instrumentally, simply reflecting the discursive frameworks of the government or the institution. 

If I wonder what kind of country the UK has become – the answer to that is increasingly unpleasant – I also wonder what kind of place the university has become. It mustn’t just blow in the wind of government policy or hide from political discourses we find uncomfortable or plain horrifying. Even when I teach science fiction - as we did this week with The War of the Worlds - we talk about these issues. So I’m starting to speak out and up. 

Friday, 5 August 2016


Well, I haven’t done this for a while.

Anyway, me and the family have just got back from the Altiplano de Granada in southern Spain – in Andalucia, in fact. It’s a fascinating place, of course, the region of Spain that stretches from Cadiz over on the Atlantic west coast to Almeria in the east. The Altiplano de Granada is an arid, high plain in the north-east of the region of Granada, and about 150km from that city. These high, dry uplands very much reminded me of the landscapes of the Spaghetti Westerns, of course, a lot of which were shot a bit further south of where we stayed.

We rented a cave-house built in the hillside above a dusty Andalucian village called Galera. Walking up to where the unmade and precipitous roads ended, to get a view over the town and, beyond, the plain, the area revealed itself almost as a Mars-scape, a place of dust and flattened hills and mountains erupting from the flat terrain. Up above the cave-houses sat a round, whitewashed building, part Moorish and part observatory (or secret state installation): an Andalusian Baikonur?

When we visited the Alhambra in Granada, that extraordinary example of Moorish architecture and culture, its articulations of space struck me as vital to its conception. The supporting columns are thin, attenuated, and some appear to dissolve into the air; ceilings draw the eye upwards, a heaven enclosed in a room; and the fabric of the building itself
wavers in the green surfaces of the courtyard pools. In his BBC series on the art of Spain, Andrew Graham-Dixon suggested that the garden, and thereby the idea of paradise, was deeply encoded in the architecture of al-Andalus, but I also think that the building points outwards and upwards, towers and palms pointing to the sky, a sky reflected in those shimmering pools. It’s a kind of cosmic architecture. While Islamic art prohibits direct representation, its formal gestures are to the divine and the infinite.

While there, I read Tariq Ali’s The Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, the first in his ‘Islamic Quintet’ of novels. This novel is set a few years after the culmination of the Reconquista, the fall al-Andalus when Granada was surrendered to the Christian besiegers in (irony of ironies, that Ali points out) 1492. It’s a novel of defeat, of the violent elimination of a way of life, the Muslim civilization of al-Andalus, and the expropriation of its property and wealth. As such, it ends in terror and death. But I began to wonder, a what if?: what if al-Andalus hadn’t fallen? What if the intellectual, scientific and philosophical culture (which had actively embraced tolerance of religious belief and practice, with Jews, Christians and Muslims sharing the same communities and social structures) had endured?
Would there be an Andalusian space program in the deserts of the Altiplano, looking upwards towards the divine and the infinite?

Clearly I need to do some more historical reading about the culture and communities of al-Andalus in its ‘golden age’ of the 11th and 12th centuries, but it intrigues to me think that there might have been another Enlightenment, another Industrial Revolution, another European history. Would technological development have avoided the exploitation of fossil fuels, and concentrated on water, wind, chemistry? Would Europe have avoided its deeply damaging and corrosive imperatives towards Empire and the domination of non-white, non-Christian others? Could tolerance have prevailed? In the town of Galera, we saw memorials to the persecution and violent deaths of the Moriscos (Muslim coverts to Christianity) as they resisted further repression in the 16th century, and the land was literally ploughed with salt afterwards: the very ground of Andalucia tells a different story.

At the recent Fantastika conference, Mark Bould gave an excellent and thought-provoking keynote on Afrofuturism, which (in its North African inflection) has clear affinities to what has been going through my own mind on holiday. If the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra is a dream, of capturing the divine in the formal structure of the building and its pools and courtyards, then al-Andalus makes me dream of possibilities of a different time, a different now. I’m just about to start the second of Ali’s quintet, based on the story of Salah al-Din (Saladin) and the Crusades, the political dimension of which is all too apparent. Amid the narratives of disaster and defeat, I’m looking for ways to hope and dream.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Night to Kill A King Is This Night

On Saturday, October 24, I attended and age a short talk at an excellent event in Oxford called Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English 'Eerie'. It showcased the work of Adam Scovell and three short films (in the end) were shown, including Adam's newest, Salthouse Marshes, and his collaboration with Robert Macfarlane, Holloway. I was fortunate enough to be invited to give one of the talks, along with Justin Hopper, Sharron Kraus (who also gave a performance), Katy Soar, George Bickers, and Eddie Proctor. It was a highly enjoyable evening and built upon the Alchemical Landscapes conference in Cambridge that was held back in March (see previous post).

I gave a talk about Alan Garner and in particular his 1980 teleplay To Kill A King. (It's available on YouTube - well worth a watch.) Here is the script.

In this talk I’ll be considering To Kill A King, a half-hour BBC tv teleplay broadcast in 1980 as part of ‘Leap in the Dark’, a series of uncanny tales. To Kill A King was written as an original screenplay by Alan Garner, and is a narrative of a blocked writer and what seems to be his muse, filmed around Garner’s property in Cheshire, which resides next to the Jodrell Bank radio telescopes.

The opening shot of the teleplay shows a train passing through the countryside – grey, wintry, dark – on an elevated railway embankment. As it passes out of shot, the camera rests momentarily on the main Lovell telescope, before panning and refocusing on the house in the foreground, in which we can see a woman in a window. This is the ‘muse’. In voice-over, we hear the voice of Harry, the writer (Anthony Bate), who awakens to find that a message is ‘already coming’.

The visual connection between the train, the landscape and the radio telescope, which is then further connected to an act of poetic transmission, rehearses the visual fabric of Red Shift, the BBC tv adaptation of Garner’s earlier novel which was directed by John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday) in 1978.

Red Shift connects landscape with a mythic conception of history and recurrence, in which the presence of a stone axe-head (a ‘thunderstone’) links three distinct eras: the first century AD, the period of the English Civil War, and the ‘present day’. Images of transportation (the M6, Crewe railway station), mass communication (tv, headphones) and place (in particular Mow Cop in Cheshire) indicate a deep vertical relation in Garner’s work between place and time which is revealed through acts of transmission, in place but across time.

This still from Adam Scovell’s Weirdstone (for Alan Garner) present the same imagistic register: Mow Cop, the Lovell telescope, the bare trees of a winter landscape. The film draws directly from Garner’s language, though it was written by Adam Scovell himself:

Under my ground is the ancient, the old world of magic and ritual, of weirdstones and thunderstones, that keep the world in balance.

Garner’s poem, ‘House by Jodrell’, published in 2015, returns directly to this ground, Garner’s home ground:

Across the field astronomers
Name stars.  Trains pass
The house, cows and summer.
Not much shows but that.
Winter, the village is distant,
The house older
Than houses and night than winter.
The line is not to London.
Unfound bones sing louder,
Stars lose names,
Cows fast in shippons wise
Not to be out.  I know
More by winter than by all the year.
And a night to kill a king is this night.

It also returns directly to To Kill A King, as the last line of this poem is the last line that Harry, upon waking, hears and transcribes. Harry takes dictation, but the lines heard as a female voice-over are not the ones he sets down on the page. When he shows the new work to his long-suffering agent, what is revealed is either Joycean glossolalia or a kind of invocation, a ritual spell: ‘It is not a piss-one, or a tin-pot to pick with you, my lad…’ it begins. Just as the Jodrell Bank telescopes ‘listen’ to the universe, a sky full of radio transmissions, Harry attends to the words ‘coming in’. The gap between transmission and transcription causes Harry to have something close to a breakdown.

What we have here is then a poetic of transmission, a model of poetic creation that Tom McCarthy, in his International Necronautical Society documents, outlines as central to 20th century poetics, from automatic writing to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus to Cocteau’s Orphée.

In To Kill A King, this is emphasised by the increasing dominance of communications equipment within the visual compositions: a reel-to-reel tape machine; disembodied telephone messages; a typewriter that begins to print on its own; and finally television broadcasts, in which Harry is trapped inside the screen of a tv, one that appears in shot directly behind him.

Is Harry a creator, a writer struggling to write and suffering mental anguish as a result? Or is he a receiver, human communications equipment that no longer functions properly?

Harry ‘escapes’ this dilemma by smashing the tv screen with a rock, a stone face that he plucks then throws back, horrified, into a pond in a walk through the winter landscape. This object, like a thunderstone, connects him directly to ritual and to place, and his ‘release’ is an act of symbolic and purgative violence, destroying his connection to the communications technologies of modernity and his fear of being ‘switched off’.

In the last shot of the play, Harry assumes the place in a chair in which the female muse had been sitting.  This can be read as a kind of fusing, in which Harry (e)merges as a writer once more, both receiver and transmitter, listener and creator.

The conception of artist as receiver, a poetic of transmissions, is crucial to Garner’s work and, I would argue, the figuration of the Spectral Landscape. In the forging of a creative connection between times, listening to transmissions of place and making these into new forms, new artworks, the artist or writer or film-maker (e)merges as a conduit between landscape, time and the broadcasting sky.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Ground of the Sea: Sinclair, Scovell and nature writing

During a summer in which we holidayed in different parts of Wales - on Anglesey, in a cold but dry week spent on beaches and checking out standing stones and ancient burial sites, and then a wet week in Ceredigion - I was invited to participate in an upcoming evening of talks and films to celebrate the work of Adam Scovell. it's in Oxford on the 24th of October, and is called 'Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English Eerie'. I'm excited by this, as it should be  a fascinating event, with different speakers, a showing of some of Adam's films, poetry readings and a performance by Sharron Kraus. I'm going to be talking a bit about Alan Garner, in relation to Adam's film homage. At a previous conference, the Alchemical Landscape conference in Cambridge in March, I talked about Garner's later book Thursbitch and how it presented topographies of land and sky in relation to each other. This time, I'm going to be talking about a less well-known Garner text, a short tv play broadcast in 1980 called 'To Kill A King'. It has much of the Garner idiom compressed into a short vignette in which a blocked writer struggles with his muse, and it's shot in the landscape around Garner's own house, with railway line and Jodrell Bank radio telescope highly visible. I'll post the talk up here in due course.

In the meantime, summer reading has - when not bound up with the necessities of academic publications - tended towards writing on landscape. In my last blog post I wrote about Iain Sinclair's London Overground, which documents a days's walk taken around the 'Ginger Line' with Andrew Kötting, who now seems to be a preferred Sinclair companion/ provocateur/ foil. His other text of 2015, Black Apples of Gower, published by Little Toller (as is the reprint of Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside, another summer read), returns more to the familial and personal ground in a text like Edge of the Orison (2005) and his companion is Sinclair's wife Anna. This feels right both for the kind of book this is, and the the territory being covered. It's interesting that Sinclair returns to his childhood on the Gower in the same year in which his film collaboration with Kötting, By Ourselves, which itself returns to the ground of Edge of the Orison: John Clare's 'Journey Out of Essex', in which he escaped from the asylum in which he had been placed and walked back to his home village in Northamptonshire. Northampton has strong familial connections for Anna, and there's a very interesting turn towards personal and family history in that book which I found very engaging, even refreshing.

As Sinclair says in a long interview with John Rogers about London Overground and Black Apples of Gower, they're quite different books, written in slightly variant styles. London Overground is pacy, zooming along with Sinclair and Kötting around the circuit, flashing with the kind of cultural associations and connections to occluded histories that is a Sinclair staple, but as I noted in my previous post, it's not Sinclair's own ground, 'Sinclair's London'. He often confesses his relation to bits of the South and West of the city is fleeting or tenuous. Black Apples is rather more meditative, and is a kind of deep reflection on his childhood, his formative relationship with the landscape of the Gower, and his meeting with Vernon Watkins (which encourages a kind of ethos of openness with regard to other, particularly neophyte, writers and artists). I liked Black Apples a lot, and think it's a more weighty and interesting book than London Overground.

As Adam Scovell has recently collaborated with Robert Macfarlane on a short film of Holloway, I picked up a copy at our local independent bookshop in Oswestry. Holloway is a short but fascinating book, much more oblique than The Wild Places or The Old Ways, and for me, much the better for it. And I noted with interest that the film of Holloway has a different script: it doesn't stage the book, instead becoming a visual and aural meditation on it. I'm rather ambivalent about Macfarlane's work myself; while Mark Cocker's New Statesman critique of Macfarlane and the 'new nature writing' mode was something of a takedown (and received a strong rebuttal from Macfarlane himself), I think the point made by David Craig in the current edition of the LRB, in which he reviews Macfarlane's Landmarks, is correct: where writers such as Richard Maybe or Mark Cocker 'stay with a region or species for long enough to sink into it and pass, as nearly as can be, inside it, he [Macfarlane] veers from one writer or locale to another. ... The necessity for Macfarlane is finding words to express the experience of nature.' Although Craig says 'it depends on how deep you want to go', the implication is of course that Macfarlane's work doesn't go deep enough.

I re-read 'Silt' (about the Broomway, a shoreline track off Foulness Island in Essex that's fairly close to where I grew up) and feel that Craig has a point. It's very well written, has a rather lyrical quality, and it makes you see and feel the place. But Macfarlane is only visiting: in some ways, it's like very high-class travel writing. That has it's own pleasures, certainly. Macfarlane's work certainly doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is, a visitor's perspective, almost a connoisseur's; and Craig's own language - the verb 'pass' is very revealing, as in 'pass for local' - arouses my suspicions about the 'depth' of other writers who 'stay'. What we should have is more writing by those who live in these particular places: what do Foulness dwellers think of it? I've just picked up the collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, published by Dunlin Press, and I'm hoping that sense of rootedness in the local is what I'll find there. First delvings look promising.

That's what attracts me to Sinclair and to Garner, I suppose. Their work is very strongly associated with a territory, a ground, re-visited and re-worked over and over again. (This is why London Overground isn't such a revealing book, in many ways, as Black Apples of Gower.) As an incomer to Wales, I'm still a visitor, though I've lived here for 15 years now. Going to Anglesey or the Ceredigion coast isn't a return to home ground, but I've realised that the sea and the coast, having grown up in Thames-side Essex, has a symbolic pull for me that the mountains of North Wales don't have. The sound, the smells, of sea and estuary mud, as well as the shifting blue/grey/green/brown of deep water, says something to me. Much as I love the valley where we live, and I'm fascinated by its history, Triton always comes knocking on my door.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Beating the bounds: misreading Iain Sinclair

My sense of Iain Sinclair’s recent book, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), is determined by a misreading on my part. In a scene where Sinclair recalls giving a reading in a ‘bamboo bar’, one of the punters, a ‘heavy presence, tieless in a loose designer suit that gave off sparks as he moved’ (38), gets a bit confrontational at the Q&A sessions. Grabbing the microphone, he lays into Sinclair:

History, he said, was pigs’ bollocks dipped in sherbert. But if you want to listen to … Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago, Tales of Mean Streets, Arnold Circus, Charles Dickens, furniture sweatshops, bagels and … blah blah blah: OK fine. Each to his own. But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory, the rescue of the old shitheaps, for which he was responsible: a player, an investor, he put his money where his mouth was. And his tongue was blistered with diamonds. (38)

A couple of things threw me. One was the double ellipsis, the gaps: what did this signify? A halting in the punter’s discourse? A shift of speaker? The problem here is that Sinclair begins to ventriloquise the other man, or vice versa; ‘he said’ appears right at the beginning of the scene, but who said what becomes a little unclear. And this is where I misread, as after ‘blah blah blah’, it sounded like Sinclair was putting down the heckler. ‘But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory’: you know fuck all. Wow, I thought, this is something new, Sinclair giving the punter a verbal kiss-off. But wait, no, that can’t be right. It’s not until ‘tongue blistered with diamonds’ that we return to Sinclair speaking, with a far more oblique put-down. It’s the punter telling Sinclair that history is bunk, that money talks (blah blah blah), that London is being purposefully re-written into a different future. Yes, now that is much more likely.

The question is: why did I mis-read the scene so violently? Sinclair telling someone that they know fuck all? How likely is that? (The italics might even be seen as diacritical indicators by Sinclair that ‘this is not me speaking’.) And the answer I came up with is: because I wanted him to say that, wanted him to be angry, wanted him to directly tell the representative of a boorish, know-nothing exploitative capital to fuck off.

Which he never does, of course. But I (would like to) think that he would like to.

In my 2007 book on Sinclair, I called the last chapter ‘Driven to the margins’, which was largely about London Orbital (2002). Since then, his major books, except for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), have elucidated a connection with London which, if not quite attenuated, then expressed the desire or need to tread new territory. Edge of the Orison (2005) re-traced John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’ and, with the central role of Anna Sinclair and family history, seemed to me to be an extension of the walking/researching/narrating method, treading on directly personal ground in a way not seen in previous books. (It will be interesting to see what Sinclair’s next collaboration with Andrew Kötting, By Our Selves, which also recapitulates Clare’s journey on foot, does with the same primary event.) Ghost Milk (2011) was about the coming London Olympics and the ‘grands projets’ of all such vastly expensive stage-sets; he visits the rotting stadia in the Athens Olympic park as a past that might haunt London’s future. And in American Smoke (2014), Sinclair takes off for the States in search of the writers and writing (particularly poetry) that remain fundamental to his Modernist poetics and world-view, a true ‘lighting out for the territory’.

So London Overground feels like a deliberate return to London, after the pointed tomfoolery of Swandown (2012), where Sinclair’s cerebral discourse acts as a foil to Kötting’s physical cinema of running, jumping and standing still (or piloting a pedalo up English waterways). It narrates a walk that Sinclair takes with Kötting, who is a somewhat different companion to other such as the photographer Marc Atkins or film-maker and author Chris Petit, who were crucial to earlier books. Kötting, who Sinclair has described as a ‘New Age stormtrooper’, is presented in London Overground as a man of physical appetite and activity: pissing in bushes, measuring the miles in terms of pit-stops to refuel, yarning about youthful sexual conquests around London. If not quite Sancho Panza to Sinclair’s Quixote, Kötting represents a different principle of physicality to Sinclair’s, which is always in service of the story (of the books themselves and of literature per se). Kötting’s own body revolts over the 30-odd mile tramp, his feet ‘squelching’ by the end (and in a coda to the book, this broken-down physicality is re-doubled in a shocking account of the motorbike accident Kötting suffered in 2013, where he suffered significant injuries). But his body is present in a way that Sinclair’s own rarely is in his texts. Instead, we are presented with Sinclair's voice.

This voice, or perhaps style, is one that characterises my experience of Sinclair’s texts as much as the territories and terrains they traverse. It’s not surprising that some of the writers and artists that are considered in London Overground have very strong and distinct styles: JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Leon Kossoff, Samuel Beckett. These are distinctive voices of which, like Sinclair, you only have to read a sentence or two to know who is writing.

The circuit (key Sinclair word all the way back to Lud Heat (1975)) that Sinclair and Kötting enact haunts the ‘Ginger Line’ in a similar fashion to the method of London Orbital, where Sinclair and others traced the ‘acoustic footsteps’ of the motorway. The Overground Line is of course much further in, a circle/ circuit that begins in Haggerston and takes in Shadwell, Denmark Hill, Clapham Junction, Shepherd’s Bush, Camden Town, and back to Haggerston. It’s interesting to note how Sinclair confesses that he does not know some of the ground particularly well, that it connects only marginally with his own personal history or recurrent interests.

But there is recapitulation here, deliberately so. When Sinclair describes Kossoff’s ‘method of choosing a number of privileged viewpoints, and returning to them, time after time’ (240) might be describing his own. In another passage, the journey takes on rather more epic clothing:

Enough miles have been covered in this half-day’s walk to call up a discussion about circularity, the Homeric voyage of adventure and return, against the grander reach of the diurnal cycle, an eternal and unchanging figure. Night chasing day chasing night. The abacus of the stars. The eye of heaven orbiting under the dish of the ocean, as Charles Olson says in the Maximus Poems [….] The drawing together of the circle is our faith in that model of the universe. And our love of it. (124)

This then positions London Overground as nostos, a return to home, beating the bounds of Sinclair’s own territory. (‘Beating the bounds’ was a phrase that appeared in my head as I was reading London Overground, and then, on page 72, it appears: ‘A rectangle filled with a unique signature of self: the beating of the bounds’. Did I tune in to Sinclair’s voice or call this phrase up?)

The text is not filled with nostalgia, however, so much as a sense of loss. For all Kötting’s antic presence, the book feels like a lament. This is why, when Sinclair and Kötting call on the venerable (and wonderful) actor Freddie Jones – now starring, completely unknown to me, in Emmerdale – the references to Jones’ performance as King Lear started to make a different sense. (Freddie and his son Toby appear in By Our Selves.) The wintry feel of London Overground – the walk takes place on a cold February day – brought to mind not the wine-dark seas of Homeric nostoi, nor sun-baked La Mancha, but rather Lear’s wanderings around a lost kingdom, lucidly mad, suffering revelation. Sinclair in London Overground is a Winter King, traversing a kingdom split in two, accompanied by a Fool who speaks truth.

As I wrote about in another blog, I’ve recently been listening a lot to the Sleaford Mods, whose angry, aggressive and expletive-filled albums seem to express not only the tenor of the times but also something about myself and the problems of a working-class person entering academia (not least in terms of the voice). The anger, the fuck off-ness of the Sleaford Mods is bracing and invigorating, which is probably why I wanted Sinclair to say the same thing. Where Laura Oldfield Ford, whose Savage Messiah (2011) seems to intersect with the Sleaford Mods’ punk sensibility, has a strong sense of articulating exclusion and deprivation and the fraying fabric of working-class urban lives, that’s not what Sinclair does, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not doing so.

But in a time of ideologically-enforced economic austerity, where a prospective Labour leadership candidate who opposes this is attacked by the establishment as a kind of fifth columnist leading the party to ‘disaster’, and where anger seems to have no purchase on political agency (as Mark Fisher wrote about the Sleaford Mods’ last album), the politics of beating the bounds is more urgent than ever. I like and admire Sinclair’s work a lot (enough to have written a book about him), and the politics of his non-fiction are clear, but in London Overground I missed the savagery and the satire of the early novels, of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1990) in particular. In completing the circuit, once again, I wonder where we can go next.