The Whalebone Box. A new collaboration with Andrew Kötting

Artist, writer and director Andrew Kötting has built up a string of quintessentially British films. The Whalebone Box is another of his experimental jaunts made with his regular collaborators and this time with his daughter Eden in the lead role. Shot in Super 8, 16mm and with an inspired use of archive material, this is a strange, haunting and magical film … with a sting in the tale. 

A box made of whale bone, entangled in a fisherman’s net was washed up on a remote beach in the Outer Hebrides. Is it an enigmatic object containing a secret? A relic, a survivor from a mysterious shipwreck or perhaps possessing magical powers? No-one knows except that it was given to writer Iain Sinclair who sets out with Kötting and the artist Anonymous Bosch on an expedition to return the box to its place of origin on the Isle of Harris. 

And all the while Eden Kötting narrates the story, working as both muse and soothsayer. She tries to make sense of the strange and mystical goings on as the journey unfolds, sometimes awake and sometimes in deep sleep. Ultimately the whalebone box is finally buried in the sand on the very beach from which it came all those years ago.

+ IN FAR AWAY LAND Dir: Andrew Kotting. UK 2019. 6 mins
A companion piece to The Whalebone Box, featuring Eden Kötting’s animated drawings, collages and paintings by the artist Glenn Whiting and the voices of John Smith, Miranda Pennell, Mikhail Karikis and Marcia Farquhar.

Followed by a Q&A with director Andrew Ko?tting and Iain Sinclair

LRB at 40: Rosemary Hill and Iain Sinclair


Join LRB contributors and editors at the London Review Bookshop in the month of the paper’s 40th anniversary, as they reflect on the last four decades through the lens of subjects they’ve written about in the pages of the LRB. In the first event of the series, Rosemary Hill and Iain Sinclair will discuss shared preoccupations starting with London.

Heritage Cruise with Iain Sinclair

Hop aboard a Thames Clippers boat and cruise to Barking and back with Iain Sinclair, one of London’s most highly respected authors. Iain will be sharing smelly riverside histories, sights and scents and submerged Thames memories.

Part of The Barking Stink – a scented heritage project. Engage your senses to discover London’s layered mysteries and stories.

Iain Sinclair is author of numerous critically acclaimed books focusing on London. He was born in South Wales. He went to school in the west of England and university in Dublin. He lives, walks and writes in East London. His books include Lud Heat, Downriver, London Orbital and, most recently, Living with Buildings (And Walking with Ghosts).

The Barking Stink is a new heritage project by Thames Festival Trust, a scented history created to explore Barking Creek’s rich industrial past. Focusing on historical smells, from fragrant fisheries to noxious factory fumes, The Barking Stink project will engage children and young people in the heritage of where they live, via animated films, a pop-up exhibition, talks, walks and workshops.

Supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Thames Clippers. Delivered in partnership with Valence House Museum.







Having being engaged since childhood with Arthur’s story as adventure – picaresque episodes, remote peoples, mountains, jungles, snakes, mules, rafts – it took some time (and hard information mined by Farne) to appreciate the true dimensions of the 1891 expedition. Arthur and Alexander Ross were fellow planters and visiting agents in Ceylon. They were investors, speculators in the booming coffee market. P.D.G. Clark, the invisible and unpublished third man, whose lengthy handwritten report to the Peruvian Corporation Farne tracked down, was a civil servant, employed by the Royal Botanic Gardens (in association with Kew) at Peradeniya, near Kandy in Ceylon. What has now been made clear, through books such as The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson, is that Kew, in unacknowledged partnership with the India Office, operated a covert system of bio-piracy, plant smuggling on a massive scale along the Amazon and its headwaters. The basic pitch being to employ desperate men, crazed and addicted solitaries on a survivalist budget, to asset strip fertile non-imperial territory for the benefit of the British Empire. ‘Liberated’ rubber plants could then be propagated at Kew, before being shipped to Ceylon or Malaya. Economic guerrilla warfare carried out in conjunction with rapacious London corporations and bankers.

Sinclair and Ross were under contract, on a monthly stipend (in case they didn’t make it), to the Peruvian Corporation of London. Born in modest circumstances, his father a small farmer and village thatcher, Arthur experienced a life of travel, making regular reports to the Aberdeen press. He was now, by the standards of the time – his investments blown, gold prospecting in Tasmania eating into his resources, a family to support – an elderly man. He was almost sixty. But it was always a done deal with the Peruvian government who couldn’t honour their bonds on borrowings for railway expansion. The land was there for the taking: how best to exploit it? Sir Arthur Dent had no hesitation in appointing Sinclair and Ross as competent (and perhaps expendable) scouts. The two men, whatever their virtues as surveyors and witnesses, were obliged to return positive reports: to be delivered as books, lectures and promotional tours. I am struck by the conjunction of two appointments made, after meetings at corporate headquarters in Brussels and the City of London in 1890. Arthur Sinclair to the ‘Headwaters of the Amazon’. And Joseph Conrad as riverboat captain to the Congo.

Arthur’s account, which is delivered with the verve of a period novel, says very little about the reasons behind his journey. Events simply happen, carrying him along, like the approach to the Ipoki rapids. What is striking is his evident awe for the power of the landscape and his tender rapport with the fecundity of the flowers, plants and trees. Which he sketches, photographs and evaluates. 

‘Coca, from which the invaluable drug cocaine is obtained, is a native of this locality… Of the sustaining power of coca there can be no possible doubt; the Chunchos seem not only to exist, but to thrive, upon this stimulant, often travelling for days with very little, if anything else to sustain them. Unquestionably it is much superior and less liable to abuse than tobacco, betel, or opium of other nations… The flavour is bitter and somewhat nauseating at first, but the taste is soon acquired, and, if not exactly palatable, the benefit under fatiguing journeys is very palpable. Cold tea is nowhere, and the best of wines worthless in comparison with this pure unfermented heaven-sent reviver.’


Arriving by way of another impossible road at Pampa Whaley, the most successful coffee plantation of the Perené Colony, is to, visibly and emotionally, jump back in time. Back to archival photographs from the Smithsonian Institute of armed Asháninka standing against these very recognisable buildings in 1910. Back to the stories we were told of the range wars: how the plantation labourers killed the managers, not in a spirit of rebellion, but under instruction; the less successful operations jealous of the position and prestige of Pampa Whaley. The garden of broken concrete pillars was not a homage to Ballard or an art installation but collateral damage from the time of Shining Path. The present co-operative, dependent, it appeared, on a distant voice at the end of the telephone in Lima, came into existence when the Peruvian Corporation land was broken up and awarded to selected workers and applicants, but never (or rarely) to the Asháninka.

The Colony lasted much longer than we thought, even with shifts of ownership: it was still functioning in the 1970s. All the former plantation workers we interviewed delivered standard riffs on maltreatment, ‘slavery’, the violence of the ‘corporals’ and overseers. All of them, that is, up to the managerial class, the technicians of the co-operative. Those men spoke, very carefully, of employment opportunities, schools, medical care. And a splendid cinema screen, still present: a white wall with a decorative border at the end of the storage shed. Here the entire workforce, managers in armchairs, truck drivers, cooks and labourers scattered on the floor to watch ‘mute’ Mexican films, romances and gunfighter epics. ‘We were made to grow coffee,’ say the Asháninka, ‘but we do not drink coffee. We were made to grow cocoa, but we do not drink cocoa.’ 

We were walked through the entire coffee production process: from arrival of trucks, through baths, grading, drying and ovens, to packaging in grey sacks and departure. It was as slow and precise and repetitive as alchemy. Then we broke for lunch and presentation of the documents we had recovered concerning the history of the Corporation.


Towards the end of his narrative, Arthur suddenly remembers that he is supposed to be making a report to London. It is a requirement of his contract. The contract that rewards him with shares in future prosperity. He delivers a panoramic rhapsody, barely touching on practical difficulties, the near impossibility of transporting product.

‘The Perené valley, however, for a tropical climate, seems remarkably healthy; there is little or no malaria, few mosquitoes, while leeches – the great pest of Ceylon – are unknown… There is an abundant supply of the purest water, flowing freely from the snow-topped mountains, almost within sight. On the banks of the Perené we nightly slept in the open air, and drank almost hourly of its waters, unfiltered…’

And the reality of this paradise? ‘This beautiful valley of the Perené has now become the property of a British Corporation, the concession having been duly ratified by the Peruvian Government, and arrangements are in progress for establishing a planting colony upon a scale never before attempted in Peru.

This land, as selected and conceded, extends to 1,250,000 acres, sufficient to grow the world’s present requirements in coffee, cocoa, coca, chinchona, rubber, sarsaparilla, and vanilla, for all of which both soil and climate are admirably adapted. Here will be a favourable opening for many a trained Indian planter, and many a restive youth in England and Scotland will find elbow-room of the most interesting and lucrative description, helping, I hope, to solve many an anxious father the problem “what to do with our boys”’.


At the lunch table, Farne handed over a letter from a Colony manager, back in the ‘30s. He was asking for practical advice. Could somebody send him a book of instructions? He knew nothing about coffee, the machines, the methods. All of it a mystery to him.

Don Armando, the operations chief, a man who worked in the last days of the Peruvian Corporation as a soil fungus specialist, gave us the tour. And now led us through the old company offices: the huge safe, the iron doors behind which wages were kept, the primitive telephone exchange, cranking a particular number for each of the other plantations. And then, taking us by surprise, behind bars, the true archive of the entire history of the Perené Colony. (In Lima records have vanished or been shredded.) Sack after coffee sack spilling across the floor, tattered and rodent-gnawed papers, letters, account books, maps, legal documents. Paper history for an impossible paper chase. Here it is, here it decays. The evidence from which an adequate history of this painful episode might be assembled.






Heading downriver on his balsa raft, in what I projected, before I arrived on the Perené, as an Aguirre, Wrath of God voyage into chaos and dissolution of all that colonialist planter confidence, it started to come apart for Arthur. As it was doing now for Lucho, our guide, and for the underlying and on-going conflict between curated tourist highlights and the necessity of understanding and untangling the means and motives of the Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891.


Arthur stumbled and slid from the ruined hutch of Juan Santos Atahualpa into the riverside camp of the Asháninka chief he called ‘King Chokery’. (More probably, according to Ross, Kinchoquiri: a name associated with settlements on the Rio Tambo.) The king was sick, feverish, attended by a personal physician or shaman.

‘Our chief priest cautiously approached, unbuckled his flask, a sort of bladder he always carried well primed with rum – the only spiritual matter he dealt in,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The tube attached to this he placed in the royal mouth, into which he injected a liberal supply of the spirit, which for the moment had the desired effect. The King, lifting his head, indicated that we might be permitted to lie down on the earthen floor at his feet, and there we lay, supperless and saturated with perspiration, till next morning.’


Kinchoquiri recovered and consented to the construction of balsa rafts. ‘Trees were at once cut down and fixed together by pins of palm wood. The balsa, or raft, consisted of seven logs, about 24 inches in circumference, rather roughly pegged together, but sufficiently buoyant to support three of our party on each. Seven of these rafts carried our company of twenty; the King accompanied us, and as he himself had never been forty miles down the river, it was an interesting voyage of discovery to all concerned.’


And to me. I had been preoccupied for most of my life in London with the myth of this river voyage, the casting off into unknown waters. There had been a few adventures over the years along the Thames, a passage from Hastings to Hackney by swan pedalo, in company with Andrew Kötting, being the most recent (and eccentric) version.

We calculated, from Farne’s researches and the study of maps by Ross, Sinclair, Padre Sala and others, that Kinchoquiri’s camp must have been close to Puerto Yurinaki. And we made a detour on our return from Mariscal Cáceras to identify the launch spot. In grainy twilight gloom, romanticised by naked bulbs hanging outside stalls offering dusty fruit, beer and coca, we rambled along the river bank until we found a line of moored boats, pulled up on a shingle beach. With advertisements for balsa excursions.


On the following morning, we made our push to get to the rapids at Ipoki, the essential climax of Arthur’s outward journey. And the heart of the matter. The rapids were where it came apart, divisions and rifts and simmering quarrels surfaced. After these dramas – vanished priests, disgruntled porters, whirlpools, a night spent with rifle on lap waiting for an imminent attack – the expedition lost focus. Arthur suffered serious altitude sickness on the return journey.

‘It was a weary zig-zag: my mule and I got sadly short of breath, but it had to be done, and what is more, we were in a tremendous hurry, my companions being possessed by the one idea – to break the record – which neither my mule nor I shared… By and by the heart’s action seemed to fail, and I suddenly collapsed, slipped off the saddle and lay down on my back, my mule gasping for breath beside me. When I gradually came to myself, I could see around me the bones of many a good mule and llama, cleanly picked, while high in the air floated the ever alert condor, said to be the largest and most powerful of all birds.’


The boatman Lucho had fixed to carry us towards the rapids had vanished like Arthur’s priests. We’d stepped out from the shared minibus and were standing in the morning heat at a small settlement where no phone connections seemed  to work and nothing our guide attempted was going to get us on the river.

But Lucho was resourceful. He flagged down a truck stacked with empty plastic fruit crates and got us a lift, wind-surfing and hanging on, dodging branches, on the road to Ipoki. We agreed to keep the driver on, if we failed to get an alternative boat at a riverside halt with café on stilts, hungry dogs and a couple of tied up motor launches.

But nothing was going to plan. Lucho called Beliza, telling her to gather up some food, take a taxi, and start work on the lunch. I placed Arthur’s photograph in a dugout canoe, and then let it float away towards the rapids.

It was determined –  ‘Let’s go, vamos, come on!’ – that we would visit yet another waterfall. There was some confusion over the term ‘cascades’. Lucho knew about jungle paths to waterfalls, but we wanted cataclysmic river features, rivers of no return. Ipoki was an initiation, a barrier between worlds. The Asháninka were reluctant to paddle any further, they would be swept into a whirlpool of dead ancestors. Arthur’s first experience of the balsa was an epiphany. After the sweat and tangle and dirt, this flight.

‘We started in single file, I electing to sit in the prow of the foremost balsa. It was a glorious morning, and as we glided onward at a rate of four miles an hour, through ever changing, but always enchanting, scenery, the effect was indescribably exhilarating. Every nerve seemed stretched to the highest pitch of enjoyment; the eyes, glancing from scene to scene, took in more impressions than the mental powers could take note of. Such a wealth of vegetation seems to mock at the idea of a few puny planters ever making much impression upon it.’

Then the Aguirre hallucinations begin. 

‘Turning a bend in the river we are struck by what seems the ivy-clad ruins of an ancient castle; but it turns out to be only an aged tree clad from top to bottom with verdant creepers, its huge horizontal arms supporting a perfect screen of living trellis-work below, while ferns, lycopods, and rare orchids, beautiful in hue as they are grotesque in form, grow upright from the damp decaying bark.’

Padre Sala shocks Arthur by fishing with sticks of dynamite:  ‘diabolical and unsportsmanlike’. The result is approved by the Asháninka who scoop up the dividend.

A woman and two children fall from a raft and are drowned. ‘It seemed the standing joke of the day, and no one enjoyed it more than the woman’s husband, who danced with fiendish glee the whole night through, encouraged by the screaming laughter of the native ladies.’

In the prow of the leading balsa, Arthur notices that they are gliding ‘rather faster than was pleasant’, and he hears a ‘ not very distant roar like muffled thunder.’ They have arrived at the Ipoki rapids.


Further and further we bounce and shudder on the river road, stopping from time to time to ask about rapids. Eventually, just beyond a bamboo hut selling fruit and stale biscuits, we see the first angry ripples, white streaks in a river that is beginning to boil. The woman who keeps the stall advises that these rapids continue, getting higher and fiercer all the way, for about five miles. There is no road but a sort of track through the jungle. She warns us against taking it: ‘a place of danger’. Beyond the rapids we are in conflicted narco territory, with private fiefdoms, guerrilla remnants from the Maoist days, traffickers, indigenous men paid to carry packages down impossible trails, bands of raiding forestry pirates. Leave well alone. As compensation, she gifts us with huge bunches of sweet bananas, which we devour as we jolt back to the riverside restaurant where Beliza is ready to serve up the lunch.

There is now a man sitting in the long launch, playing with an outboard motor. But Lucho won’t approach him, he’s hungry and there are more important matters to consider than our whim to be out on the water. ‘Yes, there is a man in the boat, but he is not the boatman.’

But there is also a boy, paddling to the far shore in the dugout canoe. He can be approached and he agrees, for two soles, to take us on the river, once more at that magical time of day. Out towards the point where a tributary enters the Perené and the water begins to seethe and make patterns.

This is much better than any motor cruise. Low to the surface, leaking a little, rocking at the slightest movement, this short voyage is as close as I come to the exhilaration Arthur experienced and expressed.