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.’


Picture 1 of 4


Peru trip, photos, part 2

Iain has sent a second set of photos of his recent trip to Peru

Iain Sinclair reads from ‘I TRANSGRESS’ // Lima 27/06/19

I contributed 3 short texts (prose poems) from my very limited edition (10 copies only) of Fifty Catacomb Saints to an anthology (I Transgress) edited by Chris Kelso, and published by Salo Press, Norwich. Chris asked contributors to post phone-recorded readings of their texts for promotional purposes (on YouTube). 
I don’t (can’t) do phone recordings and, in any case, was on the point of departure for Peru. In Lima, visiting the cathedral previously described by my great-grandfather, I asked Grant Gee to film a softly spoken reading. We had just finished inspecting the bones and monument and mummy (status questionable) of Francisco Pizarro. So it felt like the right place (by smell and sound) for this text. Grant was gathering footage for his proposed feature film, The Gold Machine. He covered our journey all the way. He’d like, if sufficient funds can be raised, to return to Peru next spring, to spend more time on the key locations. (Iain Sinclair)

Fascicle IV of Jeff Johnson’s The Works of Iain Sinclair: A Descriptive Bibliography and Biographical Chronology, covering the years 1988 to 1998, is now ready to order

Jeff Johnson is working on the most comprehensive Iain Sinclair’s Bibliography, which is being published in installments

Fascicle IV of Jeff Johnson’s The Works of Iain Sinclair: A Descriptive Bibliography and Biographical Chronology, covering the years 1988 to 1998, is now ready to order. 

Continuing directly on from Fascicles I-III (published last year), this volume covers Sinclair’s entry into the mainstream following the success of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. It ends in the aftermath of his first major bestseller, Lights Out for the Territory

It’s a transitory, patience-trying period of false starts, beginning with an aborted attempt to launch a Spitalfields documentary, serving as a metaphor for the next decade with many meetings, proposals, pitches, forays, and experiments leading into cul-de-sacs.

The few major publications, usually novels, that take physical form have a long gestation period, full of difficulties. An editorial role, a possible way to bring Revival poetry to a larger audience, proves to be as frustrating as the authorial one. Journalism (TV, radio, and print) proves to be the quickest way to get the work ‘out there’ and, unexpectedly, paves the way to mainstream success and the end of bookdealing as the scholarly autopsies begin.

This fascicle, pleasingly, ends with the broadcast of a twice-thwarted Spitalfields documentary and the presaging of several publications in the coming year.

Check out Testcentre website to order Jeff’s new installments