Laura Grace Ford Presents: An Act of Unforgetting + Q&A

As part of Open City Documentary Festival this year, we have an event with artist and psychogeographer Laura Grace Ford. She’s curating a screening of archival television documentaries from the early 90s, exploring the poll tax riots, housing, architecture and the politics of the time. One of these will be an episode from the series ‘Summer on the Estate’, set on the old Kingsland estate, whilst the other is “The Battle of Trafalgar’ which looks at London more generally. 
Her work is really interesting, and she’ll be present to introduce and discuss the work she’s chosen, placing it within an idea of these films being “catalysts for new social imaginaries.” I thought this event might be of interest to you, considering that Iain Sinclair reviewed Laura’s book Savage Messiah for the Guardian back in 2011, and they’ve worked together on projects also.
At @OpenCityDocs 2019, artist and writer Laura Grace Ford (@LauraOF) will host ‘An Act of Unforgetting’: a programme of archival TV documentaries centred around social and political upheaval in London during the summer of 1990:

A rare radio appearance last night, talking about Poe in the interval of the BBC proms. Available as podcast:

Novelist and Gothic literature specialist Elizabeth Lowry joins the writer, documentarist, film-maker and psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair to discuss the dark glitter of the Gothic and the work of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, with presenter Matthew Sweet.

Elizabeth Lowry’s latest book is entitled ‘Dark Water’

“A rare radio appearance last night, talking about Poe in the interval of the BBC proms. Available as podcast” (Iain Sinclair)




By Iain Sinclair



After Tarma and the old Spanish hacienda, with the stand of eucalyptus trees, the stepped gardens, the white and yellow irises, the scarlet geraniums, the green parrot, the dogs and chickens, the running water, an oasis much appreciated by Arthur, we are firmly established on the road travelled by my great-grandfather. So much so that for the first time I begin to hear his voice, to feel the portrait I’m carrying taking form against the curtainless window.


‘We stayed here for some days,’ Arthur wrote, ‘greatly enjoying its splendid climate – a paradise for consumptive patients.’ And then they took the route we were now following. ‘We halted for breakfast at Acombamba, only six miles from Tarma, from which we had been rather late in starting. Acombamba is a beautifully situated but decaying hamlet, with about 1,500 rather seedy-looking inhabitants.’


Dropping through a gorge, where trucks and cars flirt at every bend with disaster, throwing dirt over the wayside shrines of previous victims, and slowing only for landslides and craters being repaired by ragged bands of children and old people, freelancing for pitiful alms, we made the shift to La Merced, the town on the border of the territory we want to explore. The first intimations of a more humid jungle culture. ‘The valley opens out, and the vegetation assumes a more luxuriant aspect,’ Arthur reports. ‘The moist steamy heat tells us that we are truly in the tropics.’


The turning point in the original Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891 comes when they make contact at the Convent of San Luis de Shuaro with the priests who will guide them through the territory of the Asháninka to the point on the Rio Perené where they will take to the water, to survey the land granted by the Peruvian Government to those remote investors, the Peruvian Corporation of London. Arthur does his best, as he confesses, to put aside his native bias against the perceived iniquities of ‘the Spanish priesthood’. 


‘I honestly tried to go forward unprejudiced, thinking only of the monks of old, and the good they did in their day. But this convent was a revelation to us. We had never seen anything quite so filthy and suspicious looking before, and would gladly have escaped within an hour; indeed, did so, and began erecting our tent at a safe distance; but were implored not to insult the reverend fathers by refusing to accept their hospitality, an infliction which we bore patiently for several days.’


Arthur does not name their tonsured guides, but claims that they ‘knew as little about the path as we did ourselves’. Arthur’s companion, Alexander Ross, is more forthcoming. The man taking them forward is none other than the celebrated Padre Gabriel Sala, a Franciscan missionary of fierce temperament; a well-armed backwoodsman, bounty hunter, chronicled for rounding up souls for Christ, filling the fortress of his newly-established convent with children and other cursed or damaged outsiders.

Our own guide, Lucho, knows nothing of this history or the status of the vanished buildings. But I have seen Sala’s pioneering large-scale map in the convent at Santa Rosa de Ocapo, with its drawings of buildings and river traffic, and I recognise the shape of the wall beside the new church. And right in front of it there is a statue of Sala, up on a high pedestal like a stylite; grim-faced, gripping his bible like a grenade. As I lift my camera, Lucho calls out. He has found an old Chinese lady, Maria Genoveva Leon Perez, keeper of the church keys. Here is one of those magical presences, usually female, usually bright-eyed but mature, spirits of place stepping from forest or river to put pilgrims who have put in the necessary miles on the right path.

Maria gets on well with Farne. We are invited into her house, where she tells us how the convent collapsed in an earthquake and was never restored. She knew about life in the Colony, the harshness of the rule of the Peruvian Corporation. Yes, there were schools and hospitals – but only for sanctioned employees. Otherwise, all that land along the river was enclosed, forbidden.

We visit the church and then, at the back, the rough ground on which Sala’s border-post convent once stood. Arthur’s story has moved into an active present tense. In the earth I find a rusted machete and a stand for votive candles. On the wall somebody, at some past moment, has painted FS – as if waiting for Farne Sinclair, who has now arrived to confirm the prophecy.

If nothing else, Sala inspired Arthur to try out a phrase that has become a standard in contemporary politics. 

The worst weakness of the Hispano-Peruvian race is their inability to tell truthfully the little they know… The common people are born and bred to it, but their lies are clumsy, palpable, and comparatively harmless. With the priests and privileged classes, however, it becomes a studied art. “We must dissimulate,” said the chief priest of the convent, and I will give him credit for consistency in this; for during the three weeks I had the opportunity of studying this great economist of the truth, I never once knew him to utter a word that could be relied upon. 




The second-highest train ride in the world is now a carefully managed, once-a-month tourist experience. For tourists with the confidence to boast of how they beat soroche, the almost compulsory dose of altitude sickness. Potential headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting: with spectacular views. And regular folk dances and halts at strange, melancholy, deserted platforms. And many miles of dust discriminations in pulling away from the endless sprawl of Lima. The railway, promoted by the American Henry Meiggs, and designed by the Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski, was a monument to colonial enterprise, the will to conquer nature. 


Arthur Sinclair was impressed:

‘By rail to Chicla, 87 miles, thence on mule-back. This railway, it will be remembered, is, without exception, the highest in the world, and the engineering the most audacious. “We know of no difficulties,” the consulting engineer said to me; “we would hang the rails from balloons if necessary.”’


The 1891 party disembarked at Matucana (7, 788 feet above sea level), where they ‘resolved to stop for two days in order to get accustomed to the rarefied air’. Unconvinced tourists, we stood, awestruck and blinking from the dust and grit, in the open observation car. As the train swayed and shook, I discovered the true meaning of the term ‘branch line’, when a sprightly sapling ripped across my face. 

Lungs prepared after a couple of days of gentle introduction to mule transport, Arthur remounted the train and continued to Chicla (altitude: 12, 215 feet). ‘A dreary enough spot,’ he said. ‘Horses and mules from the low country frequently drop down dead here from failure of the heart’s action.’

The present operation, we were told, could be made more commercial by carrying cargo from the smelting plant at La Oroya (still in the top ten of most polluted places on earth), or agricultural produce and coffee from the farms of the cloud jungle. But freight traffic is too profitable a deal for haulage interests. And the political impulse is to let the heroic railway fade quietly away. The spectacular Lima terminal, Estacion Desamparados, once the offices of the Peruvian Corporation of London (sponsors of Arthur’s expedition), was now a library dedicated to Nobel prizewinning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. Who choose for many years to live in London. 


‘Leaving Chicla, the real tug of war begins,’ Arthur reported. ‘A wretched road, made worse by the debris from the railway, which, for the first fifteen miles, we saw being constructed still far above us, the navvies hung over the cliffs by ropes… Higher and still higher goes this extraordinary zig-zagging railway, boring into the bowels of the mountain and emerging again at least a dozen times before it takes it final plunge for the eastern side of the Andes.’


We step down from the train at La Galera. This was the highest station in the world before the Chinese, who are much in evidence here too, constructed the pan-Himalayan line through Tibet. It felt like coming ashore after a long voyage. Farne admits that moving from her seat might have been a mistake. She developed the worst headache of her life. Every step on the ground was a slow-motion adventure. Taking advice, I had dosed myself on coca tea (approved by Arthur) and the trick of learning to hold my breath as long as possible, before letting it slowly out. In fact, having taken one giant breath in Lima, I’m not sure if I remembered to take another until we disembarked, in the pulsing dark, all honking taxis, dogs, luggage, managed by a single policewoman in Huancayo. Our guide, the one who was supposed to meet us, was nowhere to be found.


By Iain Sinclair

It was a long-held ambition to follow the journey mapped and described, with picaresque vigour (and a degree of latitude), by my Scottish great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. He published his version of the 1891 expedition, undertaken with fellow planter Alexander Ross and ‘practical botanist’ P. D. G. Clark, in 1895. These men were on commission from the Peruvian Corporation of London to survey a vast tranche of land, more than 500,000 square miles, to assess its potential as an economic resource: exploitation by way of coffee estates and forestry. The journey, involving mules, bounty-hunting priests, encounters with indigenous people and a river adventure on balsa rafts, had serious and long-lasting consequences. 


The push to make the trip in July 2019 came from my daughter Farne, who was determined to record a series of podcasts and to satisfy her own curiosity about her distant relative’s motives and experiences. She was returning to a country she had previously visited in her gap year before university, earning the money required by working for the printers who had published all my early books. We were accompanied by the filmmaker Grant Gee, who had his own agenda, gathering material for a piece entitled The Gold Machine. My brief diary jottings are framed by quotations from Arthur’s book, In Tropical Lands: Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon… 




Arthur Sinclair: ‘And now, when in the capital, I am afraid I shall disappoint you, for I am not fond of cities; my heart always longs for the quiet country beyond. A simple man, my tastes lie among the simple people on the mountains, or in culling the common weeds by the wayside. I cannot, therefore, enter here into any detailed description of Lima, which at one time, we are told, was considered the gem of South America, and though now somewhat sullied, is still beautiful; picturesquely situated, with a climate almost perfect, the sun rarely scorching, and the rains never bedraggling the inhabitants.’ 


Dust. Haze. Horns. Arbitrary cab jumps: we learn, by experience, the more battered the better. The wrecks operate in wild, improvisatory spins and surges, down streets they have never before attempted, patron saint swinging as you corner, taking off on speed bumps, avoiding the main, permanently stalled boulevards with their Cola hoardings, cancelled hotels and new narco banks. The smarter vehicles, addicted to airport runs, have blind faith in the oracular pronouncements of sat-nav, robotic voices that always land them in the same twilight waste ground, by a perimeter fence, near a discontinued railway. With dogs.


With Farne, I set off, at her suggestion, to find the South American Explorers Club. A nice metaphor for what followed. Time is provisional. ‘Twenty minutes, comfortably’ becomes an hour of traffic dodging and shade chasing. The given address is a locked gate and shuttered windows. Enquiries at the Brazilian/Peruvian Cultural Institute carry us back to another dead building. The Explorers Club is just a Borgesian test: we fail, until we appreciate that the thing to be explored is our own incompetence. The Club is long gone (exploration rebranded as Adventure Tourism) – although, as we learn later, it was once operated by Lucho Hurtado, the man who will be our guide through the cloud jungle.


Arthur Sinclair: ‘Here I was shown the remains of the “Gran Conquistador”, a fit relic for this holy of holies. Pizarro, the pitiless tool of priestcraft and the conqueror for covetous Spain, had, like the last Napoleon, one redeeming trait in his character, viz., a taste for architecture, of which this cathedral is an example… It was on the 26th June, 1891, the 350th anniversary of Pizarro’s violent and bloody death, that the coffin was opened… On removing the lid the body was found almost in its entirety and completely mummified, still partially covered by rags of silk… and the remains of a finely embroidered shirt. The body was quite desiccated, and of a dingy white colour. On close examination it was found that certain portions were amissing, viz., the fingers, toes, and certain other parts, having been cut off and removed. From the appearance, the committee were satisfied that these mutilations had taken place immediately after death…’ 


Access to Plaza Major and La Cathedral is denied by a line of black uniformed police in baseball caps. We were told that they were anticipating a gay/lesbian protest action. Passage to the cathedral and the remains of Pizarro might be possible in one hour or two. Honouring Arthur’s taste for Chinese enterprise, we lunched on a platter of rice and bits with compulsory litre of sweet Cola. And delirious TV news reports shot raw on phones and surveillance cameras,  ferociously edited: motorbike thefts, looped corruption trials (often lasting for decades), street killings and chases.


When, eventually, we are allowed into the grand square, it is deserted. Pizarro’s remains seem to have been classified and reclassified on numerous occasions. Real flesh, fake bones.

 This is the right setting, without question, for Grant to record a brief reading I’ve been asked to do, to promote an anthology edited by Chris Kelso. ‘Death’s charnel house and every stage in the process of mortality, the unrobing of flesh from bone, is made visible…Churches are large buildings, in which, after the concept of sanctuary lost its force, nobody chose to live. And only marbled duplicates are permitted to sleep and wait.’


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