“While we were plodding, not yet foot-foundered, through Andrew Kötting’s familiar Surrey Quays territory, I told him how much I enjoyed his fragmented contribution to the anthology, “London, City of Disappearances”. All those clashing memory raids and riffs. He has a profound and undeceived sentimental attachment to streets, shops (selling hard hat, big boot, work-fetish kit), Italian cafés, Millwall chants, foot-bridges,  condemned tower blocks, heartstruck courtships, scrap yards, labouring years, gyms, mislaid friends, messenger boy dock-delivery anecdotes, drunk-drowned comedians, cabbies, skinny trees, slack rivers, gay junkshops thick with incense. Re-reading his fat hardcover ‘Deadad’ book, I found it as ripe as his films: a chaotic (but canny) collaboration of peers and siblings and then some potent autobiography, real writing. And so, as we munched our super-spiced slabs – ‘More mustard, more gherkins, more everything,’ he cries – I proposed a viewing of something from the notebooks he filled with such diligent neurosis. Then, moving down the line, and climbing over Peckham Rye, the Kötting memories turned to more explicit favours in remembered rooms, art school knockabout. And I forgot all about my request. Andrew didn’t, despite the wonky knee, the difficulty of hauling himself out of a pub in Kentish Town, for the last crawl, now on all-fours, to Pentonville and Islington and Hackney. Here is what he sent.”

Iain Sinclair


American Smoke: Road Talk (photos by Iain Sinclair)


Picture 1 of 90

American Smoke: Road Talk (by Iain Sinclair)

2011. March 23. Heathrow to Vancouver. The once in a lifetime experience of an upgrade to Business Class. Pulled from the check-in scramble, we expect to be bumped to another flight, but instead find ourselves in a privileged lounge, where we observe air-miles collectors and other canny freeloaders snacking and sipping, gratis. Broadband links are so swift, they compose the script for you. In flight, we are given dos-a-dos pods. Movies are interference. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel: bad money chasing the wrong investment. The epic of travel eclipsed in wilderness slumber.


Sylvia Hotel, Vancouver: a dark bar imprinted with memories of Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas and Errol Flynn (spectres who will shadow this voyage down the West Coast). William Gibson recalls a dinner here with William Burroughs. Before or after he died, I’m not sure. The lights don’t go out, neither do they shine. Windows jungled with posthumous reflections.


It’s a good place to walk away from: container ships waiting in the bay, snow-covered mountains. A scenic curtain disguising devastation, upcountry, by the logging industry. Stanley Park with its wooded headlands and shrouded perspectives. Beyond the marina, the seaplane pontoons, the islands where native tribes perched their dead in the trees, is a mall called Sinclair. Heritage is managed by legends of gold rushes, bandits, martyred labour heroes. And a broken-nosed muleskinner called Cataline. An east-facing city, on whale watch, well-mannered, hospitable, with necessary pockets of corporate madness, alien architecture and drug psychosis. Stay too long and you’ll never get away. This is the only place I have visited where a post-office counter clerk says that she’ll ring me if she can find somebody to cash my money order. They don’t keep banknotes in that part of town.


A local scholar, abjuring the second half of the England/Wales Euro qualifier (no great sacrifice), drives me to the spot (or series of possible spots) where Lowry had his squatter’s shack. Dollarton. As crystal clear, that morning, as the Lake District. As time-travelling monochrome portraits of Lowry on the terminally bad journey that carried him from the blasted Mediterranean island of Vulcano to the lush territory of Wordsworth and Coleridge. And to his mysterious end in the village of Ripe in Sussex. A stone with erased inscription. Set some distance from the grave of his wife.


I paddled, picking up a beer cap, rusted, golden-yellow: Corona Light. Mrs Gibson, who lived (as a child) beyond the forest path to the spring, recalled the barrel-chested writer’s reputation as a shoplifter from the village store. The storage tanks of the oil refinery, that Lowry read as (S)HELL, are visible still. He was reputed to swim at all seasons, an hour or more, right across the Burrard Inlet. A site worthy of record.


Metronews: AMPUTEE HAS PROSTHETIC LEG STOLEN FROM CAR. The leg is described as having a flesh-coloured foot with a silver clamp above the ankle and a long aluminium rod with a blue finish.

March 27. Central Pacific Station. An early-rising (or unsleeping) freelancer hits me for a guilty dollar, as I negotiate the best position for an architectural photograph. The station is a grandly romantic setting for the transition from Canadian courtesy (easy, natural) to US parodic politeness (while ordering you to empty all cases and pay a tithe for impinging on their sacred space).  A hippie couple, pantomiming every form of drug neurosis, pack and unpack their rucksacks and bin bags on the station floor. We have been told, by Vancouver folk who make regular trips to Seattle or Portland, that the border country, with its shacks, creeks, scrub woods, is famous for incest, bestiality and weird sex crimes. Today, the look is benign. Train windows are the most basic form of cinema. I’d be happy to run with this for a week. With a new pocket camera, purchased under advice at Heathrow, I am lucky enough to catch a narrative of the logging industry (China-bound furniture) in a single shot: mounds of stripped trees, sawdust alps, distant boat coming into frame as the train crosses the struts of an iron bridge and arrives, on cue, as we pull clear, to witness ruined jetties of vanished industries.


We reverse into Seattle: the usual nexus of grand-project stadia and super-malls decorated by giant portraits of helmeted football players. The cab driver, operating by the rule that insists on the person least familiar with a town being fated to act as guide and promoter, shunts us to our hotel. He is a Bangladeshi, twice exiled, making the best of it.


Ice-polished monsters of the deep gape on a slab, while rubber-booted marketmen play them like puppets, working bloody mouths in a scornful ventriloquism. Tourists are prepared to queue for hours to get into the original Starbucks outlet. Half a dozen others, close by, are deserted. This is a layered market, caved and stacked with an obscene abundance of product: flowers, meat, hats, honey. Slow books buried in shops that remind me of Hastings before the coming of the internet. A double purchase: Gary Snyder’s Danger on Peaks and a rescued retro-pulp, The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis. Goodis, with his skewed account of alcoholic derangement and a holiday from hell, winks at Lowry. ‘Some sixteen hundred miles from Manhattan,’ Goodis writes. ‘But what it amounts to is no change at all. It’s the same gloomy picture. It’s the picture of yourself sliding downhill.’



‘Jack was married to my sister once,’ says Snyder. ‘We all hung out in North Beach in the fifties, but now he lives in Mexico.’ There is a poem for the sister too. She was driving down 101, the route we will soon take. ‘The pickup ahead of her lost a grass-mower off the back. She pulled onto the shoulder, and walked right out into the lane to take it off. That had always been her way. Struck by a speedy car, an instant death.’ I alternate chapters of yellowing Goodis with pristine, white pages of Snyder. A photograph of Mount St Helens from the North, taken by the poet as a young man, is featured on the book’s cover.  Ten dollars the pair.


These were not the only books I carried away. In the hotel room was a smartly produced freebie: What to Read in the Rain. While the weather held, we took a boat around the bay: stacked containers in and out of China, the spindly detritus of world fairs, trade shows and rock museums. The obvious Seattle expedition was to the suburb of Ballard. ‘Shingle Capital of the World.’ Private hospitals. Pet clinics. A riverside park and a heritage lock. Thai fast food for slow people. If you want to identify the end of the line in any city, look for Ballard. In Paris, Balard (one l) is where they tested military hardware, basements with tanks for toy warships, wind tunnels, firing ranges. Now they are planning a French Pentagon. On the other side of the road is a holding camp for Romanian travellers and economic migrants.


By ferry across Puget Sound with our hired chariot, a Chrysler Impala; solid, comfortable, world-excluding. The laminated maps are pretty but useless, the scale deceptive. I imagined Washington and the Olympic National Park as a spin around the Lower Lea Valley, but traffic is swift and serious. Distance unravels slowly and steadily, rain is constant. It comes with the enclosing forests. Military exclusion zones. Fortified camps. Somewhere around here is the prison where they boarded Mickey Cohen, the simian LA mobster. Cleared hillsides and miles of Scots pines so ancient they communicate by languages we haven’t begun to comprehend. Logging rigs, lights blazing, on twisting roads out of Ken Kesey. Sometimes a Great Notion. I read 636 pages of that one, after finding a first English edition in Preston. And before noticing that the last page was missing. I never did discover how it turned out. Flopping in my chair, after a long day in Trumans Brewery, I fell asleep in the movie. Paul Newman directed. And starred. With Henry Fonda, Lee Remick. Never Give An Inch, they called it in England. Not much seen. Kesey, by the time he was picking up change by impersonating himself, on the psychedelic bus in England, was a sorry spectacle. Better to stay on the farm.


Snyder got into conversation with a trucker. ‘Those things are huge, how the hell do you drive them?’ ‘They’re real easy.’ ‘Still, you have to find a place to park?’ He laughs, ‘Yeah, you do.’


Night finds us, coats over heads, running for a motel in Forks. Not the best place, it turns out, for a pre-prandial stroll, a one-street canyon between sweating neon windows and parked trucks. Rain hammering down so hard it seems to be travelling in two directions at once, bouncing like bullets. In bars and shops, twinned displays: lists of those serving in Afghanistan and adverts for vampires. Forks is a blood town: David Lynch people, costive with charm, contemplate all-day breakfasts. This, so they tell me, is the setting for the Twilight series, a high-school vampire franchise. German tours arrive to experience locations. The writer has never been near the place, filming happens in Oregon, but after a major trawl of the internet, it was decided that this roadside logging halt was the ideal setting for Dracula’s grandchildren.


In the diner, next morning, two solid citizens in baseball caps continue a hand of cards that has been running all night, or longer. They reminisce about their kids and their difficulties with the local law, trivial stuff about weapons, attack dogs and contraband booze. Hard to grow up straight these days. The walls are decorated with delicate landscapes painted on handsaws and toothed blades.


Later that day, coming off-road for a walk in the forest, an attempt to reach a lake, there is thick silence underfoot and dripping trees to fill our veins with slow sap. Another ten yards and we’re gone, wood. Ancient trails suck out memories of the car, the road. With no transition, we’re pulling into an out-of-season beach resort like Southwold. They are  just as careful about whom they let in. When I creep alongside the surf to photograph a humped rock, a moon that was never there infiltrates the digital screen.


Crossing the California state line, they flag us down, to search for suspect cargoes: oranges. Under the microscope, traces of alien spores are revealed. ‘Where did you purchase these items, sir?’ ‘Port Orford.’ ‘Ha!’ A major investigation will be launched. Three pieces of fruit are confiscated.


The rumour I picked up on in the gas station is confirmed: 101 is closed, landslide, mud. After weeks of rain. The alternative route is 120 miles over the mountains, through banks of deep snow, a white-knuckle ride against a magnificent Anthony Mann backdrop of forest and alpine peaks. Close to the first summit is a tree of shoes. Like the crow-picked aftermath of a lynching; a regiment of hanged joggers devoured, right down to their rubber footwear. Not a great omen for what lies ahead. The town of Red Bluff.  Where signs warn you not to throw yourself from the bridge. When Anna tries to open the curtains in the hot-pillow motel, the whole business rips from the wall, the rotten plaster. Prison blankets impregnated with Camel smoke. Slippery sheets. Outside the window, drinkers congregate around a defunct, leaf-enhanced swimming pool. Early next morning: deserted forecourts, flapping ribbons, naked palms, the only pedestrians are mortality-protestors doing a length of the highway, out from the old folks’ home, before breakfast.


In the Sierra Nevada foothills a man stands in a clearing, still as a tree, rooted, waiting, at the precise time allocated to our arrival. A crazy-friendly dog leaps at the car, licks the window. Her name is Emi. The man is more guarded, as he should be, on his own ground. He’s a poet in America. And his name is Gary Snyder. He’d like to understand what I’m looking for, the angle of purchase against laws of hospitality. The house, beams ordered in an elegantly calculated geometry, is both Japanese and frontier-cabin fundamentalist. An enviable space with its own generators and reserve generators. In the world and of the world. And cleared for meditation, labour, living. The shaping of words.


‘What are those birds?’ Anna asks. Of an insistent wrap-around croaking. ‘Frogs,’ Snyder said. A green pool soliciting haikus. Bullfrogs are a plague. ‘How do you put up with it?’ ‘I shoot them.’ We enjoy a thimble of green tea and a dish of dried fruits, before inspecting the library in the barn.


Contemporary gold-extracting operatives are trenching the territory. Snyder tells us that this was Native American camping ground: winter game above and fish from the river below, in due season. This is also the place where the poet Lew Welch, who accompanied Jack Kerouac and Albert Saijo on the Trip Trap drive from San Francisco to New York in 1959, stepped out into the forest and vanished. One of Lew’s poems on that road journey: ‘I always take/ more keen/ I cook it in a rifle/ and shoot myself.’ Snyder went up to where Welch’s car was parked to call him to dinner. There was a note, the gun was gone. Friends and neighbours searched for three days. ‘We watched for vultures.’ Nothing. Nothing ever.


Bob’s Diner where we used to have breakfast, on Polk Street in San Francisco, has gone. It is still there, the old ripped leatherette seats replaced by something more tasteful, padded taupe frames around sand-coloured backrests, but with a new name: Toast. And toast does indeed come with everything. The TV on the wall is flat screen and disappointingly pin-sharp. A number of other old-established small businesses have gone. Rough sleepers park their trolleys in piss-varnished doorways. Travelling across town on the bus, we fall into conversation with the wife of KW Jeter of steampunk fame. I remember Morlock Night, which ran The Time Machine backwards into the subterranea of 19th-century London. The Jeters lived for a few years in Bath.


Poets, visible and invisible, nocturnal or balcony-enhanced, live on the other side of the bay. A day meeting them is a day well spent, and worth the soul-shuddering cost of a rush-hour drive, sun in eyes, traffic rallying through in all lanes, slipstreaming, weaving, elbows on horns. The poets sustain, in different ways, the magic of place; a certain stillness, hard-earned and chipped at the edges. They grant our temporary residence on the crust of the earth a glamour, a sheen. Stained-glass memories. Relics stacked in boxes or displayed in subtle frames. The story of their days is finessed as a series of beautifully honed routines. We should pay them to breathe.


The drive, San Francisco to Los Angeles in one hit, hanging over the rest of our trip like a doleful cloud, was one of the easiest. A road that was just a road, through agribiz acres and supermarket plantations. The multi-lane jockeying through unfamiliar grids has none of the psychotic fury of Hackney. Leaving the car at the airport is shucking a burden. The rapper who ferries us to Sunset Boulevard has a London granny, and a routine that involves collecting rents for an elderly Jewish gentleman and depositing the weary and infirm at their clinics of choice. He points out the nodding oil donkeys on the suburban hills, recalled as the backdrop for the last act of Touch of Evil. Hank Quinlan’s future all used up. Everywhere is like the Mexico of Orson Welles (Venice Beach): entropy, chocolate bars, honky-tonk joints, dope motels, bad wigs and tortillas. The driver, who describes his rattling wreck as a limo, has a deal going with the car-hire Latinos at the airport. He could have been a basketball pro, or a soccer star, if it hadn’t been for that knee. David Beckham, in his opinion, was more than an ambassador. He was a genius, an inspiration. A English gentleman. Unstoppable, a fanatic for statistics, the limo-jockey pounded the wheel and spun us a web of get-rich-quick schemes.


In a last act of unreality, we are upgraded to a junior suite. Top of the world, ma. The palm trees. The pool nobody is going to disturb. The horizon of downtown towers. Xerox ghosts and escaped celluloid quotations. Errol Flynn, of course, had preceded us into this Thirties tower. There were twin apartments for concurrent mistresses of Howard Hughes. Frank Sinatra. Marilyn Monroe. John Wayne kept a cow on his balcony. Looking down from the Hockney shower: underwear models on giant hoardings posture in constantly revolving mini-movies. Everybody who arrives in the twilight-dim restaurant demands, and is assured that they will get, the best table. Deals founder. Dinner auditions stall.


When I take my dawn walk, I encounter the only pavement vagrant on the West Coast who bites back. ‘Didn’t I tell yuh to stay the fuck away from me?’ He is more tanned than weather-beaten. Grey ponytail, leather sombrero. Warren Oates after losing the head of Alfredo Garcia. Does he inhabit the same universe as the hyper-obliging waiter at the poolside breakfast table. ‘You’ll take the coffee? Awesome!’ This is going to be the best day of the rest of your life. Again.

American Smoke: Road Talk (announcement)

Iain has decided to make a gift to all his readers: he will publish on this website the diary of his recent trip in North America accompanied by a selection of his own pictures.

I am working at preparing the pictures and I am hoping to have the post ready by Saturday 4/6, so come back to check on the day.

I would like to thank Iain for his generosity.


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


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


Rosy myth


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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