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“Postcards” taster from Iain

Iain has very kindly agreed to publish a taster of the coming book “Postcards” for publisher PigHog. Other articles concerning the book can be found here and here.

Enjoy the taster:

COASTING

‘To port you’ll notice the famous white cliffs of Dover,’ the staggering steward said, as our vessel put in close enough to Beachy Head to allow 650 cameras to whirr and click as one. The ship lurched. And the tray for the captain clinked without spilling a drop. If the two of them, the Clydeside navigator and his bosun, a woman dressed like an LAPD enforcer, tried to exit the wheelhouse at once, they would wedge in the open doorway. Burgers and beer were portered at hourly intervals. Until we curved around Margate, lost sight of land, and they broke open the whisky.

    650 was the number of the drowned in the great nautical disaster of the Princess Alice, when a pleasure boat coming down the Estuary, piano thumping, was cut in two by a collier, out of Limehouse, with a drunk at the wheel. Our voyage, Newhaven to Tower Bridge, was a deliberate attempt at recapturing that spirit. With the added bonus of a reverse-angle sighting of Marine Court, the concrete liner docked on the Grand Parade at St Leonards. Emptied of its inhabitants (they were all on board), the tall building swayed like a stack of dirty crockery from a wedding party in the Royal Victoria Hotel. There was no wind today and the sea was as oily-still as petroleum-based whale lubricant, or a stanza from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

    The MV Maldoror advertised itself – in chalk at a bus stop – as the last Mississippi paddle-steamer plying the Channel trade. (With the paddle element aborted and a narrow strip of deck arranged with hard white plastic chairs borrowed from a garden centre, off the A21.) As soon as they embarked,  greyheads from retirement colonies along the entire south coast, shaken and stiff from their budget coaches, joined the queue for breakfast that snaked from the salon, up the stairs, and back to the gangplank – where it was absorbed into the shuffling mass of those who were still trying to force their way onboard without tickets. Bacon was scorched and freestanding, eggs bounced. Experienced travellers, taking up the offer of a discount, after last season’s disaster, made straight for a banquette at the bar, where they fell asleep for the duration. Youths in white T-shirts competed to post the most obscene objects into the open mouths of snoring grandmothers. The winner was declared as a Polaroid of the mouth itself, composed from six inches back.

    From the Royal Sovereign Lightship, Hastings is an unreliable rumour and Marine Court a white fault in the haze. The structures we don’t usually see are the ones with which we are now intimate: sluggish wind farms, decayed military tripods. An old flyer, clanking with the decorations pinned to his jacket, relives the Battle of Britain. Eyes expand to fill telescopes. A surging wake is the manifestation of the ship’s funeral, the posthumous nature of the exercise.

    Coming close enough in to count the pebbles in Derek Jarman’s garden, our vessel tilts alarmingly as the crowd rush to commemorate the nuclear power station. Drinks crash from the captain’s tin tray. And are replenished by the flushed steward, who later points out Tilbury docks as we creep along the Isle of Sheppey. This voyage was the best kind of endlessness, salt water infecting the blood. Impossible not to offer a nod towards Conrad, waiting at Gravesend. ‘Since it was impossible for me to face both ways,’ he said, ‘I had elected to face nothing.’

    When they put us ashore, we swam home, slowly, leaning against boarded-up shops, whirling our arms like the missing paddle-wheel, looking for marine truths in the glass and steel of a concrete swamp.

REDACTED: OUT-TAKES FROM The Colossus of Maroussi as it appeared in The London Review of Books (27 May 2010)

REDACTED: OUT-TAKES FROM The Colossus of Maroussi as it appeared in The London Review of Books (27 May 2010)

Hotel

The small hotel in Rovertu Gkalli she had recommended was indeed convenient as a starting point for urban expeditions, and for debriefing sessions with gracious Athenians, prepared to indulge my pointed interrogations. The paper-thin walls, and that nostalgic bouquet of drains, were off-set by a panoramic view from the roof terrace, demonstrating the relationship between the Acropolis and the museum at its foot, both of them tactfully lit to stand out against the living boneyard of white and pinkish-white box buildings, the terracotta tiles and the narrow apartments from another era, caved in from the pressure of development and left alone as interesting tumbles of masonry.
Breakfast in this hotel was a necessary penance, the same self-service troughs you find everywhere, the spitting coffee-sludge dispenser, along with coachloads of young American college students brought here to keep the business going in pinched times. They averaged three circuits of the postmortem sausage and rubber egg selection, and they were very cheerful about it, refuelling against the threat of a summons back to the culture bus. ‘Sorry, sorry. It will be better tomorrow,’ the redundant waitress, the hovering figure in black, whispered.

Airport

Our first arrest came at the site of the old Athens airport, out on the coast, near Faliro Bay. The whole curve of shoreline, despoiled by the perverse aesthetics of grand project architecture, was a natural wonder. The new tramline dropped weekenders at their pine-sheltered seaside clubs. Nobody cycled or jogged on the official city paths, they were here: slow men playing football as a communal dance; a shuffle, a feint, a sway, and a long rest. There were swimmers in the clear water. Men with comfortable bellies in tight polo shirts paddled balls with force, but no venom, across high nets. Gentle exercise was a privilege of the city, enjoyed without nannying rhetoric and vainglorious expenditure.
It was suicidal to attempt a crossing of the new road, between coastal strip and former airport. A bridge, twisted like a badly repaired spine, led directly from one abandoned Olympic zone to the airfield with its blocks of buildings given over to obscure trade fairs and expositions. The bridge was padlocked. The walls and concrete ramps were dense with graffiti: HEZBOLLAH GAME THE FUTUER (sic). Reaching the far side, buffeted by traffic and feeling very much at home, I discovered that the airfield was open to inquisitive walkers, the fence was down and there were no obvious prohibitions. I followed traces of runways where we had once landed, en route to the islands, and I snapped tyre marks, avenues of lighting poles and over-designed shelters made for the 2004 Olympics. The derelict airfield was a retail park waiting for finance.
I was lining up a shot of a grid of cracked tiles, in front of some windowless block-buildings, glorified container sheds in pale blue, when the car screeched up. The driver didn’t speak much English, just two words: ‘Get in.’ As we bounced across the field, I remembered the fate of the British plane-spotters; perhaps it had not been such a great idea to make a photo survey of this public wilderness. Anna, I thought, was looking rather tight lipped. Images are always contentious. The idea of a long interrogation, and whatever followed, was not appealing. In the Lower Lea Valley, as I had heard from so many photographers, film was seized, digital material deleted: not here, not this time, photography was not an issue. The driver was bored, he had no idea what we were after, unlanguaged aliens doing crazy stuff in the middle of nowhere. He dumped us back on the main road.

Theft

We learnt to time our breakfast raids between coaches. It was our last morning and I wanted to get to the Museum of Cycladic Art. I was intrigued to see a businessman in a rather too well-cut pinstripe suit lurking in the doorway of the fast-food bunker. The clientele were otherwise slogan T-shirt American students or crinklies like ourselves, dressed down for the culture tramp and wearing trainers. Was this an economic indicator? Were there still deals to be done, power breakfasts to be made, even in such a do-it-yourself cafeteria? The man, tanned, trim of hair, swept impatiently through the tables, giving off an odour of controlled annoyance, that his contact had failed to arrive on time. Turning from the coffee dispenser, on the far side of the room, I was surprised to see the pinstripe man flicking open his jacket and choosing to sit, back to back with my wife, in an otherwise quiet corner of the restaurant. I saw him dip under the table, get up and move rapidly away.
‘Did you leave something on the floor?’
It was the new bag, of course, and the credit cards, euros, spectacles. I had witnessed the whole slick operation and failed to put it together in time to prevent the theft.
The man on the desk didn’t want to know. ‘It doesn’t happen. You left the bag in your room.’
They had a CCTV camera, yes, but such men are clever, the critical moment would be masked by his jacket. I saw it all, I could recognise the man again, I had been watching him. Not interested. ‘You don’t want to become involved in a court case? They would never prove anything.’
We could use the phone to cancel the credit cards and pay for the calls. He couldn’t be sure where the nearest police station was to be found and he wouldn’t recommend making a report: the time, the formalities. Insurance, we have to do it. Greeks don’t have insurance. Which is a reasonable policy. We pay a premium, fill in forms, make claims, are challenged to find receipts and offered the equivalent of the secondhand value of the items, if any. And we’re still waiting.
Out on the streets, the mood was threatening. The National Gardens were closed, entrances guarded by black-beret soldiers with Plexiglas shields. Union protestors, with placards, were gathering on the other side of the road. But there was no difficulty about wandering through the opposing lines, we were unchallenged. Because the park, through which we wanted to walk, was secured against intrusion by those whose jobs were threatened, we found ourselves opposite the Presidential Palace on Irodou Attikou as the black limo swept in. The Museum of Cycladic Art was selling itself on a special exhibition of erotic sculptures and images. There were posters for the big show in town: Gilbert and George.

A NOTE ON EDITING

I’m grateful to the London Review of Books for their patronage over the years, for allowing me space to develop complicated essays, with detours and diversions. Their editing procedures are sensible and relatively painless. There is a house style, a liking for lengthy paragraphs, and so on, and we make our adjustments. In the case of ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ report from Athens, which was written around a trip in January, the political situation accelerated while the piece waited on publication. Proofs were emailed to me, to be viewed in an internet café peopled by dealers and drifters in Polk Street, San Francisco. I was stuck in the Icelandic dust-cloud limbo. Printing a hardcopy was impractical. And beyond the energies of the moment. The editor, for reasons of length or pace, or suspicion of domestic special pleading and crude comedy, took out the sections I have ‘rescued’ for the website. Without seeing how the cuts worked against my original typescript, I failed to appreciate what might be lost. In some ways, as you’ll see, nothing very important. But for the integrity of the structure as I conceived it, these episodes are required to underpin the more polemic and topographical passages. The first visit to the breakfast bunker isn’t just a tourist postcard, it sets up the theft. The behaviour of the one man in the city dressed in a pinstripe suit was a small metaphor for the whole business. And the way that, going back out into the streets, we encounter the first protest.

Iain Sinclair

SAGESONG: A text for Gateshead performance (with pictures)

‘A few days in Newcastle, talking with fellow performers at the ‘English Journey’ event, attending a screening (and later an Indian meal) with Kenneth Anger, and walking to Morden Tower and along the Tyne. The Tower, bellying out over a narrow alley, set against the old wall, is unrecorded by heritage plaques. A Chinese arch signals a street of restaurants and the St James’ football stadium. There are so many ghosts, some of them loud, some moving discreetly like shadows. Alan Moore is delighted to meet Tom Pickard, on his return to the original city of his imagination: he collects a copy of ‘Guttersnipe’ for Mel, his wife, who is back in Northampton. She says that Pickard, when she discovered him in San Francisco, wrote the sexiest prose in England.’

SAGESONG: A text for Gateshead performance

‘Poet appointed dare not decline…’

I build a raft of books. A paper nest to split finger pads and drip a bloody wake of words, behind us, on thick water. Against a ball of mud in the throat: Sagesong choked or hooped in tight brass. I spit colliers’ phlegm and shattered hubcaps. Doctor-fathers at the pit gate. The held silence of a Quaker Meeting House. Pebbles clattering in a fast stream.

I build a raft of sea-books, to make my drowning sure. Better than concrete boots for the sinking. Water, so cold and clear at source, thickens to reeking soup. In Norfolk I saw trees grow upsidedown in sand, henges or rings, like the negative of a longboat, a Viking burial. In Lindisfarne they are houses.

I build a raft from gospels and traceries, serpents in relief on stone crosses. Beasts mashed from pulp and from poets: Bunting, MacSweeney, Pickard, Griffiths. Time served in cells and cells splitting open to hungry light. Rivets, driven through the paw, rust to coral. An hour gathers them in, memory-libraries for creosote and pitch, skin for a black sail. You do not know this place and this place does not know you. Foolish to speak. To spoil a slow pint. Bunting cautioned against verbiage. Cut cut cut. ‘Vision is lies.’

First, I came for love. And then for books.

the fire-crowned terrain

as the sea burns

wind

You can’t burn your boats when you live inland…

Died

Rosy myth

bee-like

we cluster & suck.

 

BROTHER WOLF, a Turret Book, in red and black. I remember, when I first met Barry, he told me how he laboured over this Chatterton repossession, day after day, setting and resetting. He came over the water to Hackney, trailing stories of Kensington and Cambridge. We were walking towards the canal they have now drained for cosmetic Olympic work: fish dead, coots peddling in shallows. The place was the place he had left behind. You could see him split like John Clare. And how on the road north, trudging after a dead muse, another self tears up the roadside grass for your dinner. The iceman shadow.

 

There is so much land in Northumberland.   The sea

Taught me to sing

The river to hold my nose. When

It rains it rains glue.

 

Northumbria. Bunting tells us what this meant, the proud scale, running from coast to coast, a kingdom, not some heritage parlour, or ruff of postcards. People from the south vanished, eaten by the bite in the soil. I knew a bookseller, a decent, quiet man who sat by the bars of his electric fire in the clammy English Midlands, chewing his pipe. When some ghost of success, stock that could actually be sold, impinged on his private cave, he ran north: Northumberland. A lighthouse. He was never heard from again.

Sparty Lee, was it? Cottages, owned by Barry MacSweeney’s aunt, where poets gathered to read and fight: 1967. I was not there. You’ll find the history now on an estate agent’s website. Or an obituary by Nicholas Johnson in a broadsheet. ‘He taught many Creative Writing students at Hertford College of Further Education how to decipher the Racing Guide from a Newspaper…. A new generation of English poets met head on for “Sparty Lea Poetry Festival”. Sparks flew and Sparty Lea – like Morden Tower – set the benchmark for pollination of radical poetics.’

Pollen Nation: Northumbria. Fossil-dust of ancient crop circles. Pearl barley. Barry’s much-loved marigolds, watermint and borage. I was not there. Never invited to this town – and later, never able to come: always on the road, walking with fetches, or hunkered down in a 40-year Hackney bunker. The books, by then, had become walls, beds, tables. Cash. Tom Pickard ate them, smoked them, they bailed his charge. And kept him, always, close. ‘Better a thief than a fool,’ the Greeks say.

Pickards’ bellying Tower: Tom and Connie. I raid archive, I reive the Middlesborough image hoard to find a clip of Professor Eric Mottram, in the Tower, shocked by the cabin-like proportions – how so much could have happened in so tight a space. It reminded him, this sleepwalker, of past-times on the North Sea, a war-convoy heading for Russia. Arctic chill recollected in a decommissioned Whitechapel synagogue: the warm tape-recorder spooling on his lap as he dozes through another performance piece, and the poet snuffs out the ritual candles to improve the dark.

Mottram gave an interview entitled Our Education is Political. ‘In Zurich I was learning German with a Polish countess, whose family had known Rilke… I really remember as a small boy, just remember… what I remember is seeing the headlines – I must have been something like six – but I really do remember seeing the headlines – of what was called the Jarrow March… Bill Griffiths, whose poems I published for the first time, is one of the most extraordinary poets, with a range of abilities. It is an utter scandal that this man doesn’t have huge grants and have a job somewhere, I mean he’s living on doles… He lives in Seaham.’

Ted Lewis: Jack’s Return Home. Filmed, by southrons, as Get Carter. ‘It’s nearly full light now. From where I am I can see the sweep of the river for a good twelve miles and to my right, inland, the glow of the steelworks is pink against the grey sky…I scan the yard. There is no sign of Eric… The water round me is becoming streaked with thin red lines that swirl slowly towards my feet… And between us, beyond my feet, half in the water, is the shotgun, what’s left of it, twisted and black, still smoking, the smoke curling up into the grey morning sky…’

I wasn’t here, I was not invited. I did not invite myself. I went to Durham, several times, and in the snow I saw that great black plug of rock as an English version of Kafka’s Castle. I wrote a script called Carry On, K., in which all the minor parts would be played by fabulous English grotesques. Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Bernard Bresslaw, Charles Hawtrey. Whinnying, sniggering, braying against  sense and sensibility, neutered, mules of the irrational and perverse. I read in pubs and backrooms, with the patronage and hospitality of poets, Ric Caddel and Jackie Litherland. Chris Torrance brought his penny-whistle from Wales. Outside, drinkers from the hills went naked.

The Pickards, meanwhile, were importing Americans, who repaid the favour. Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn and the rest.  ‘The Lord Mayor,’ Pickard said, ‘had a frigate-launching on the Tyne to attend and she invited Dorn to accompany her. The invitation didn’t include me.’

Dorn wrote to his mentor and friend, Charles Olson.

‘The launching was spectacular, they made an incision in the bottle of champagne with a diamond cutter but it still didn’t go bust the first time. But when she did go away I was standing lined right up with the runners and saw it all, very slowly at first so you could hardly notice and then all at once fast, into the Tyne… The band struck up with a rousing version of that tune from Bridge on the River Kwai… Then we all went into the company’s reception room as ten thousand Jarrow workers streamed out of the gates for home…’

‘Dorn stayed on for a couple of days,’ Tom reported, ‘and we took him for a lunch-time drink with Basil.’

‘Basil Bunting,’ Dorn wrote, ‘is a fine old man, very funny the way he’ll stare at you with this silly grin on his face, up close, and you think he hasn’t got it until suddenly he makes his answer. A real, seedy old gent, but very straight. I like him immensely…’

June I972, a few weeks before the birth of our first child, this was where I had the instinct to come; my own birthday, I remember, in Bamburgh. We had the use of the communal mini-van for this trip to Holy Island. Anna was so close to her time that she had, in good part, to be heaved and rolled on the dock after the crossing. I’ve had a soft spot, ever since, for the pushing of that little humped car across the causeway, against the incoming tide, in Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac. Which indeed it proved to be, in terms of his later career: he calls it his favourite film. Beckett and Pinter synthesised, in an absurdist translation, with actors from everywhere, and producers who would go on to facilitate Witchfinder General for Mike Reeves. Out on the Farne Islands, gulls swooped and dived, in the wrong movie. But this was the right place, powerfully so. While Anna rested on a bench, I saw a warm brown shadow move. And I followed. You are closer to Scotland here, my roots, than to London. Closer to Norway. To the Polish wastes. Our daughter was named Farne and I wanted her, when that question came up, to be christened at the ruined abbey: if anywhere. But they declined, residents only.

5 March 1978. When it comes to it, we try to respect the rules of ritual, the community of this Hackney church, its tiny congregation. One or two of the old folk have come along, the vicar is in flow. There was close attention to what was happening, no holding aloof, when Brian Catling heard a soft click against the stone. A man called Harry had slumped, coughing out his teeth, which bounced once on the aisle, before Brian swooped with a large red handkerchief. He got Harry out to the porch while the vicar carried on with the dipping and marking. News was brought through, in whispers, that this elderly and faithful parishioner had died. The ceremony now became a double-event, memorial tribute and welcome; one valued member of the flock departing and a new soul joining the Christian fellowship.

Not long after this, so it was rumoured, the vicar’s wife, mother of numerous children, left the adjoining vicarage to enlist in a Stoke Newington lesbian commune. Our son and our younger daughter were not christened.

My mistake was in taking Anna, in the later months of that pregnancy, to another Polanski film: Rosemary’s Baby. The dim corridors of a haunted brownstone apartment block recalled, many years later, in the beached boat-building, Marine Court, where we had our south coast flat. Not a rivet on the whole craft. Cancerous concrete. An upper-deck of radio masts and photovoltaic scanners inducing epilepsy and involuntary flashbacks to Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Television sets erupting with waterfalls. The hubris of demolishing a prized Georgian terrace to pastiche a phantom ocean liner, the Queen Mary. While the hunger marchers head south on their long road to London.

Fools think the train will do, take the strain of journeyman prose. Prostituted topography. They see the north through a misted glass. And they see it thin. Locals cultivate cataracts.

JB Priestley (1934): ‘I have a very distinct recollection of  taking a great dislike to the whole district, which seemed to me so ugly that it made the West Riding towns look like inland resorts… The centre of Newcastle, in which we had now landed, had a certain sombre dignity… It was still raining, though not hard; and the whole city seemed a black steaming mass… ‘

Paul Theroux (1983): ‘It had the poisoned & dispirited look of a place that had just lost a war. It was an area of complex ugliness – not just the dumps full of gulls and cows, and the weak defiance in the faces of the teenagers – it was also the doomed attempts at survival: the farmer ploughing a small strip behind an abandoned factory, and the garden allotments of sheds and overgrown enclosures, cabbage and beans, geese and pigs, vegetables and animals alike dusted

with fine smut and looking cancerous. It was like a sight of China – black factories & narrow, necessary gardens, and a kind of visible helplessness. It was one of the dreariest landscapes I had ever seen.’

I came on the train too, packed hard against an impatient man in a dark suit, bristling with laptops and electronic tagging devices. He complained loudly about our conversation, the anecdotes of poets and bookmen. ‘Other people, business people, use this service. Show some consideration.’ He rammed his glistening black-leather appurtenances into every available or unavailable cranny. I sneaked a look at his screen. Graphs and fiscal reports gave way to action porn, whitemen with guns zapping beards and suntans. He was a tax cop, coming to asset-strip a failing Gateshead enterprise. Ten minutes out from Newcastle, he snorted into his mobile, demanding a car. The station was ranked with welcome parties and fleets of taxis. As we drove away, we saw him, puce now, screaming into his hand, about the limo that had wisely decided not to put in a appearance.

Tin men on hills, arms spread wide, like Peter Schmeichel trying to block a penalty. Commissioned angels knocked up in the shipyards to protect motorway shopping malls. Failed angels, coated in development blubber, plunging from multi-storey car parks. Fire demons out on the moor. ‘I am the nightmare,’ said Barry. Who met Bobby Robson on the train and had a great session, so he claimed, competitively quoting Dylan Thomas. Forty miles from heaven.

Priestley got it right in the end. He found his guide.

‘It was my bookseller friend who took me down the Tyne. The rain had gone but the morning was cold and rather misty, I had nothing to do most of the time, but stare through the window of a  saloon car… We began by running down the old Quay Side as far as we could go… These were mean streets. Slatternly women stood at the doors of wretched little houses, gossiping with other slatterns or screeching for their small children, who were playing among the filth of the roadside… If TS Eliot ever wants to write a poem about a real wasteland instead of a metaphysical one, he should come here…

We had to cross the derelict shipyard, which was a fantastic wilderness of decaying sheds, strange mounds and pits, rusted iron, old concrete and new grass. Both my companions knew about this yard, which had been a spectacular failure in which over a million of money had been lost. They had queer stories to tell of corruption in this and other yards, of lorry-loads of valuable material that were driven in at one gate and signed for, and then quietly driven out at another gate, of jobs so blatantly rushed, for show purposes, that in the last weeks wooden pegs were being used in place of steel rivets… I do not know that anywhere on this journey I saw anything more moving and more significant than that old patched boat, which hung for years on the davits of a liner but is now the workless men’s Venture, creeping out with the tide to find a few fish…’

Make a map of sound: hammers on iron, axe blades on bone. Naked women dancing on beaches. Coal chutes and broken shotguns. They love their poets and bridle them with poverty, drive them out. At the finish, Priestley, sick with self, his long absence from London, stumbles on the secret recipe.

‘In Gateshead, on our way back, we passed some little streets named after the poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Tennyson; and I wondered if any poets were growing up in those streets. We could do with one from such streets; not one of our frigid complicated sniggering rhymers, but a lad with such a flame in his heart and mouth that at last he could set the Tyne on fire. Who would rush to put it out?’

I walked all morning in weak sunshine photographing horsehit on the road. But I did not reach the sea. ‘They only listen,’ Tom said, ‘when you think they aren’t.’

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A few days in Newcastle, by Iain Sinclair (plus photos, as soon as the postman delivers them)

‘A few days in Newcastle, talking with fellow performers at the ‘English Journey’ event, attending a screening (and later an Indian meal) with Kenneth Anger, and walking to Morden Tower and along the Tyne. The Tower, bellying out over a narrow alley, set against the old wall, is unrecorded by heritage plaques. A Chinese arch signals a street of restaurants and the St James’ football stadium. There are so many ghosts, some of them loud, some moving discreetly like shadows. Alan Moore is delighted to meet Tom Pickard, on his return to the original city of his imagination: he collects a copy of ‘Guttersnipe’ for Mel, his wife, who is back in Northampton. She says that Pickard, when she discovered him in San Francisco, wrote the sexiest prose in England.’

Iain

SAGESONG: A text for Gateshead performance

‘Poet appointed dare not decline…’

I build a raft of books. A paper nest to split finger pads and drip a bloody wake of words, behind us, on thick water. Against a ball of mud in the throat: Sagesong choked or hooped in tight brass. I spit colliers’ phlegm and shattered hubcaps. Doctor-fathers at the pit gate. The held silence of a Quaker Meeting House. Pebbles clattering in a fast stream.

I build a raft of sea-books, to make my drowning sure. Better than concrete boots for the sinking. Water, so cold and clear at source, thickens to reeking soup. In Norfolk I saw trees grow upsidedown in sand, henges or rings, like the negative of a longboat, a Viking burial. In Lindisfarne they are houses.

I build a raft from gospels and traceries, serpents in relief on stone crosses. Beasts mashed from pulp and from poets: Bunting, MacSweeney, Pickard, Griffiths. Time served in cells and cells splitting open to hungry light. Rivets, driven through the paw, rust to coral. An hour gathers them in, memory-libraries for creosote and pitch, skin for a black sail. You do not know this place and this place does not know you. Foolish to speak. To spoil a slow pint. Bunting cautioned against verbiage. Cut cut cut. ‘Vision is lies.’

First, I came for love. And then for books.

the fire-crowned terrain

as the sea burns

wind

You can’t burn your boats when you live inland…

Died

Rosy myth

bee-like

we cluster & suck.

BROTHER WOLF, a Turret Book, in red and black. I remember, when I first met Barry, he told me how he laboured over this Chatterton repossession, day after day, setting and resetting. He came over the water to Hackney, trailing stories of Kensington and Cambridge. We were walking towards the canal they have now drained for cosmetic Olympic work: fish dead, coots peddling in shallows. The place was the place he had left behind. You could see him split like John Clare. And how on the road north, trudging after a dead muse, another self tears up the roadside grass for your dinner. The iceman shadow.

There is so much land in Northumberland.   The sea

Taught me to sing

The river to hold my nose. When

It rains it rains glue.

Northumbria. Bunting tells us what this meant, the proud scale, running from coast to coast, a kingdom, not some heritage parlour, or ruff of postcards. People from the south vanished, eaten by the bite in the soil. I knew a bookseller, a decent, quiet man who sat by the bars of his electric fire in the clammy English Midlands, chewing his pipe. When some ghost of success, stock that could actually be sold, impinged on his private cave, he ran north: Northumberland. A lighthouse. He was never heard from again.

Sparty Lee, was it? Cottages, owned by Barry MacSweeney’s aunt, where poets gathered to read and fight: 1967. I was not there. You’ll find the history now on an estate agent’s website. Or an obituary by Nicholas Johnson in a broadsheet. ‘He taught many Creative Writing students at Hertford College of Further Education how to decipher the Racing Guide from a Newspaper…. A new generation of English poets met head on for “Sparty Lea Poetry Festival”. Sparks flew and Sparty Lea – like Morden Tower – set the benchmark for pollination of radical poetics.’

Pollen Nation: Northumbria. Fossil-dust of ancient crop circles. Pearl barley. Barry’s much-loved marigolds, watermint and borage. I was not there. Never invited to this town – and later, never able to come: always on the road, walking with fetches, or hunkered down in a 40-year Hackney bunker. The books, by then, had become walls, beds, tables. Cash. Tom Pickard ate them, smoked them, they bailed his charge. And kept him, always, close. ‘Better a thief than a fool,’ the Greeks say.

Pickards’ bellying Tower: Tom and Connie. I raid archive, I reive the Middlesborough image hoard to find a clip of Professor Eric Mottram, in the Tower, shocked by the cabin-like proportions – how so much could have happened in so tight a space. It reminded him, this sleepwalker, of past-times on the North Sea, a war-convoy heading for Russia. Arctic chill recollected in a decommissioned Whitechapel synagogue: the warm tape-recorder spooling on his lap as he dozes through another performance piece, and the poet snuffs out the ritual candles to improve the dark.

Mottram gave an interview entitled Our Education is Political. ‘In Zurich I was learning German with a Polish countess, whose family had known Rilke… I really remember as a small boy, just remember… what I remember is seeing the headlines – I must have been something like six – but I really do remember seeing the headlines – of what was called the Jarrow March… Bill Griffiths, whose poems I published for the first time, is one of the most extraordinary poets, with a range of abilities. It is an utter scandal that this man doesn’t have huge grants and have a job somewhere, I mean he’s living on doles… He lives in Seaham.’

Ted Lewis: Jack’s Return Home. Filmed, by southrons, as Get Carter. ‘It’s nearly full light now. From where I am I can see the sweep of the river for a good twelve miles and to my right, inland, the glow of the steelworks is pink against the grey sky…I scan the yard. There is no sign of Eric… The water round me is becoming streaked with thin red lines that swirl slowly towards my feet… And between us, beyond my feet, half in the water, is the shotgun, what’s left of it, twisted and black, still smoking, the smoke curling up into the grey morning sky…’

I wasn’t here, I was not invited. I did not invite myself. I went to Durham, several times, and in the snow I saw that great black plug of rock as an English version of Kafka’s Castle. I wrote a script called Carry On, K., in which all the minor parts would be played by fabulous English grotesques. Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Bernard Bresslaw, Charles Hawtrey. Whinnying, sniggering, braying against  sense and sensibility, neutered, mules of the irrational and perverse. I read in pubs and backrooms, with the patronage and hospitality of poets, Ric Caddel and Jackie Litherland. Chris Torrance brought his penny-whistle from Wales. Outside, drinkers from the hills went naked.

The Pickards, meanwhile, were importing Americans, who repaid the favour. Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn and the rest.  ‘The Lord Mayor,’ Pickard said, ‘had a frigate-launching on the Tyne to attend and she invited Dorn to accompany her. The invitation didn’t include me.’

Dorn wrote to his mentor and friend, Charles Olson.

‘The launching was spectacular, they made an incision in the bottle of champagne with a diamond cutter but it still didn’t go bust the first time. But when she did go away I was standing lined right up with the runners and saw it all, very slowly at first so you could hardly notice and then all at once fast, into the Tyne… The band struck up with a rousing version of that tune from Bridge on the River Kwai… Then we all went into the company’s reception room as ten thousand Jarrow workers streamed out of the gates for home…’

‘Dorn stayed on for a couple of days,’ Tom reported, ‘and we took him for a lunch-time drink with Basil.’

‘Basil Bunting,’ Dorn wrote, ‘is a fine old man, very funny the way he’ll stare at you with this silly grin on his face, up close, and you think he hasn’t got it until suddenly he makes his answer. A real, seedy old gent, but very straight. I like him immensely…’

June I972, a few weeks before the birth of our first child, this was where I had the instinct to come; my own birthday, I remember, in Bamburgh. We had the use of the communal mini-van for this trip to Holy Island. Anna was so close to her time that she had, in good part, to be heaved and rolled on the dock after the crossing. I’ve had a soft spot, ever since, for the pushing of that little humped car across the causeway, against the incoming tide, in Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac. Which indeed it proved to be, in terms of his later career: he calls it his favourite film. Beckett and Pinter synthesised, in an absurdist translation, with actors from everywhere, and producers who would go on to facilitate Witchfinder General for Mike Reeves. Out on the Farne Islands, gulls swooped and dived, in the wrong movie. But this was the right place, powerfully so. While Anna rested on a bench, I saw a warm brown shadow move. And I followed. You are closer to Scotland here, my roots, than to London. Closer to Norway. To the Polish wastes. Our daughter was named Farne and I wanted her, when that question came up, to be christened at the ruined abbey: if anywhere. But they declined, residents only.

5 March 1978. When it comes to it, we try to respect the rules of ritual, the community of this Hackney church, its tiny congregation. One or two of the old folk have come along, the vicar is in flow. There was close attention to what was happening, no holding aloof, when Brian Catling heard a soft click against the stone. A man called Harry had slumped, coughing out his teeth, which bounced once on the aisle, before Brian swooped with a large red handkerchief. He got Harry out to the porch while the vicar carried on with the dipping and marking. News was brought through, in whispers, that this elderly and faithful parishioner had died. The ceremony now became a double-event, memorial tribute and welcome; one valued member of the flock departing and a new soul joining the Christian fellowship.

Not long after this, so it was rumoured, the vicar’s wife, mother of numerous children, left the adjoining vicarage to enlist in a Stoke Newington lesbian commune. Our son and our younger daughter were not christened.

My mistake was in taking Anna, in the later months of that pregnancy, to another Polanski film: Rosemary’s Baby. The dim corridors of a haunted brownstone apartment block recalled, many years later, in the beached boat-building, Marine Court, where we had our south coast flat. Not a rivet on the whole craft. Cancerous concrete. An upper-deck of radio masts and photovoltaic scanners inducing epilepsy and involuntary flashbacks to Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Television sets erupting with waterfalls. The hubris of demolishing a prized Georgian terrace to pastiche a phantom ocean liner, the Queen Mary. While the hunger marchers head south on their long road to London.

Fools think the train will do, take the strain of journeyman prose. Prostituted topography. They see the north through a misted glass. And they see it thin. Locals cultivate cataracts.

JB Priestley (1934): ‘I have a very distinct recollection of  taking a great dislike to the whole district, which seemed to me so ugly that it made the West Riding towns look like inland resorts… The centre of Newcastle, in which we had now landed, had a certain sombre dignity… It was still raining, though not hard; and the whole city seemed a black steaming mass… ‘

Paul Theroux (1983): ‘It had the poisoned & dispirited look of a place that had just lost a war. It was an area of complex ugliness – not just the dumps full of gulls and cows, and the weak defiance in the faces of the teenagers – it was also the doomed attempts at survival: the farmer ploughing a small strip behind an abandoned factory, and the garden allotments of sheds and overgrown enclosures, cabbage and beans, geese and pigs, vegetables and animals alike dusted

with fine smut and looking cancerous. It was like a sight of China – black factories & narrow, necessary gardens, and a kind of visible helplessness. It was one of the dreariest landscapes I had ever seen.’

I came on the train too, packed hard against an impatient man in a dark suit, bristling with laptops and electronic tagging devices. He complained loudly about our conversation, the anecdotes of poets and bookmen. ‘Other people, business people, use this service. Show some consideration.’ He rammed his glistening black-leather appurtenances into every available or unavailable cranny. I sneaked a look at his screen. Graphs and fiscal reports gave way to action porn, whitemen with guns zapping beards and suntans. He was a tax cop, coming to asset-strip a failing Gateshead enterprise. Ten minutes out from Newcastle, he snorted into his mobile, demanding a car. The station was ranked with welcome parties and fleets of taxis. As we drove away, we saw him, puce now, screaming into his hand, about the limo that had wisely decided not to put in a appearance.

Tin men on hills, arms spread wide, like Peter Schmeichel trying to block a penalty. Commissioned angels knocked up in the shipyards to protect motorway shopping malls. Failed angels, coated in development blubber, plunging from multi-storey car parks. Fire demons out on the moor. ‘I am the nightmare,’ said Barry. Who met Bobby Robson on the train and had a great session, so he claimed, competitively quoting Dylan Thomas. Forty miles from heaven.

Priestley got it right in the end. He found his guide.

‘It was my bookseller friend who took me down the Tyne. The rain had gone but the morning was cold and rather misty, I had nothing to do most of the time, but stare through the window of a  saloon car… We began by running down the old Quay Side as far as we could go… These were mean streets. Slatternly women stood at the doors of wretched little houses, gossiping with other slatterns or screeching for their small children, who were playing among the filth of the roadside… If TS Eliot ever wants to write a poem about a real wasteland instead of a metaphysical one, he should come here…

We had to cross the derelict shipyard, which was a fantastic wilderness of decaying sheds, strange mounds and pits, rusted iron, old concrete and new grass. Both my companions knew about this yard, which had been a spectacular failure in which over a million of money had been lost. They had queer stories to tell of corruption in this and other yards, of lorry-loads of valuable material that were driven in at one gate and signed for, and then quietly driven out at another gate, of jobs so blatantly rushed, for show purposes, that in the last weeks wooden pegs were being used in place of steel rivets… I do not know that anywhere on this journey I saw anything more moving and more significant than that old patched boat, which hung for years on the davits of a liner but is now the workless men’s Venture, creeping out with the tide to find a few fish…’

Make a map of sound: hammers on iron, axe blades on bone. Naked women dancing on beaches. Coal chutes and broken shotguns. They love their poets and bridle them with poverty, drive them out. At the finish, Priestley, sick with self, his long absence from London, stumbles on the secret recipe.

‘In Gateshead, on our way back, we passed some little streets named after the poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Tennyson; and I wondered if any poets were growing up in those streets. We could do with one from such streets; not one of our frigid complicated sniggering rhymers, but a lad with such a flame in his heart and mouth that at last he could set the Tyne on fire. Who would rush to put it out?’

I walked all morning in weak sunshine photographing horsehit on the road. But I did not reach the sea. ‘They only listen,’ Tom said, ‘when you think they aren’t.’

(Iain sent the photos for this article by mail but they haven’t showed up yet)

“ATHENS NOTES AND QUOTES FOR AN UNMADE MOVIE” by Iain Sinclair (with pictures by the Author)

DATELINE

Three days, exploring the city and its satellite Olympic parks and stadia, in January 2010, when strikers and students are beginning to take to the streets. And the extent of the economic catastrophe is being felt. ‘All for the best in the best of all worlds,’ say the Greeks. ‘As long as we stick together.’

DOGS

They were going to hunt dogs with guns, the Berliner said, to clear the streets for the Olympics. A fertile myth – and the starting point for an essay, which is due to appear in The London Review of Books. Dogs everywhere. Unculled, collateral victims of the Olympic gaze: cleaned-up, neutered, turned loose. Tagged with blue collars. On film footage, shot two years after the 2004 Games, I noticed the loping beasts, freelance caretakers, patrolling the overgrown wilderness of the Olympic complex, out at Maroussi. Those who are condemned without justification become the sole occupiers of the deserted palace.

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THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI

An undervalued travel journal by Henry Miller, time out, between Paris and an American return: in the shadow of war. The first Miller title published by Penguin Books (1950), after original publication in 1941. Miller mythologizes the Falstaffian poet, George Katsimbalis. A war-damaged man, ever-thirsty, indulging epic flights of fancy. With all the madness of a grand project promoter.

He was talking of cities, of how he had gotten a mania for Haussmannizing the big cities of the world. He would take the map of London, say, or Constantinople, and after the most painstaking study would draw up a new plan of the city, to suit himself… Naturally a great many monuments had to be torn down and new statues, by unheard-of men, erected in their place. While working on Constantinople, for example, he would be seized by a desire to alter Shanghai. It was confusing, to say the least. Having reconstructed one city he would go on to another and then another. There was no let up to it. The walls were papered with the plans of new cities… It was a kind of megalomania, he thought, a sort of glorified constructivism which was a pathologic hangover from his Peloponnesian heritage.

 

GIORGIO de CHIRICO

Dreamer of ruins. Lived in Athens as young man. Attended the Polytechnic. Was present at the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896. The currant trade had collapsed, the country was bankrupt. De Chirico scorned the attempt at staging a parallel cultural Olympiad.

Dreary, tedious and above all artificial. A destructive atmosphere of intellectualism lay over the public and the actors. It looked as though everyone was stifling huge yawns… But the organisers of open-air spectacles do not want to understand and continue, more through stupidity than through obstinacy or conviction, to give these clumsy performances in all countries.

 

NEW AIRPORT

Familiar sheds: IKEA as a complimentary flightpath hangar in yellow and blue. Whisky hoardings for Johnnie Walker in terminal corridors and Metro station. HOPE WALKS FASTER THAN FEAR. THERE’S A GREAT BIG WORLD OUT THERE – & IT’S ALL YOURS.

OLD AIRPORT

Abandoned. Serviced by a padlocked bridge. Expensive sheds, ghosts of trade fairs and expositions, waiting for retail park funding. I am arrested, driven away, for wandering the site taking photographs. Unlike the paranoia of the Lower Lea Valley, nobody cares about the images. I’m dumped back on the main road.

GRAFFITI

Universal underclass babble. Not an audition for gallery space and alternative celebrity status. Football, music, Mao. Stencilled Uncle Sam: I WANT YOU TO PAY. Finger jabbing like Quentino Tarantino on his whisky billboard: I WRITE MY OWN SCRIPT. Trains, by unspoken agreement, are only sprayed up to window level.

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MARKUPOLO STADIUM

A post-Olympic use has been found for one of the stadiums. Australians run a limited-over cricket league.

LEGACY EXERCISE

No Greeks sweat around the splendid new path at the base of the Acropolis rock. A few Coca-Cola executives and more Aussies come out in the dusk. When my niece gives the circuit a try, she is bitten by one of the guardian dogs.

NOSTALGIA

When we are thrown off the Metro, heading out for the Olympic Complex, we are decanted into a bendy bus, a viral torpedo, going nowhere very slowly, which makes us feel very much at home.

ARISTOTELIS (film-maker) INTERVIEW. London: 4/2/10

‘I grew up in Athens. Like most of the people who live there, I am not from Athens. I had a happy life. I lived in the suburbs. I studied architecture at the University of Athens. I was living near the centre, Omonia Square, part of the historic triangle of Athens. Omonia Square is a place where crime has increased. Prostitution: drugs: it’s an interesting place.’

‘The riots were not something new, this was happening for many years before… The riots started with one incident, the death of a young

student. Then everything broke loose. The sad thing is that nothing happened after that event. And now Greece is in a worse economic state. With the change of government almost everyone is in a bad situation and it’s a hard place to be and to work. The structure of society, based on family, based on friends, is what keeps us going: everyone helps one another. It’s not like England, where everyone is an individual.’

‘The Olympic Games were a great thing to have for historic reasons, but the Games were not well handled… Now the legacy of the Games is just empty buildings, we have no use for them. They are monuments for us, historic monuments, so we can handle them and live with them. We are used to living next to ruins. They are just ruins, they were never anything else. ‘

‘Yes, definitely, the Olympic project contributed to the situation we are in now. We have an increased debt. It’s the attitude Greek people have towards things. “It’s fine, it will get better – as long as we’re together, having fun. It will work out.” That’s history.’

MELINA MERCOURI

Movie diva, government minister. Mercouri invents the notion of a ‘City of Culture’. ‘Culture,’ she pronounced, ‘is Greece’s heavy industry.’

There is a clip of Mercouri on YouTube, like a superimposition of Never on Sunday and Psycho. She prowls up to Anthony Perkins and perches beside him to croon. ‘What’s it about?’ he asks. ‘Like all Greek songs, about love and death,’ she replies. ‘I give you milk and honey and in return you give me poison.’

OLYMPIC COAST ZONE AS JG BALLARD THEME PARK

Permitted paths vanish into dunes of landfill, into neurotic traffic, into rail tracks and tramways. But the old road, the ghost road, the one that was here before all this madness, has become a favoured route for joggers and cyclists. The Olympic Park, that corrupted legacy, is like mid-period Fellini: kite flyers, moody urbanists in long overcoats, white cars parked in unlikely places, a glitter of sea you can never quite reach. Across the coastal highway, over the tracks, is an area of balconied flats, steel-blue offices, and sex clubs with scarlet promises: STRIP LIVE SHOW. The final doodle on a white board marking the end of the Olympic zone confirms Neo Faliro as a JG Ballard theme park without content: THAT HEAVEN WOULD WANT SPECTATORS.

HELENA SMITH: 14/2/10

‘The peak, and the beginning of the end of the boom, came when Athens pulled off a successful Olympic Games in 2004. Hosting the world’s biggest sporting event was seen as a national triumph, but, at nearly €9bn, the games also stretched Greek coffers to breaking point.’

Iain Sinclair

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