Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

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Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Fri Jul 22, 2011 9:54 pm

Iain Sinclair's struggles with the city of London

Iain Sinclair has spent decades documenting the capital and its edgelands. Now he has launched a furious attack on the Olympic development project.

Robert Macfarlane guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 July 2011 10.05 BST


Hackney's Pepys? In his new book Ghost Milk, Sinclair's immediate argument is with the London Olympics. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Iain Sinclair is notorious in Austin, Texas. Seven years ago he sold his literary archive to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, and since then he's been shifting his papers from a scruffy lock-up in east London to the HRHRC's deodorised storage facility in downtown Austin. He's notorious because his archive arrives pretty much as it was shovelled out of the lock-up: a jumble of documents, dust, mud, mould and dead insects, "40 years of scribble and grunt" heaped into hundreds of binbags and boxes.


Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project by Iain Sinclair

Pity the poor archivists, you're thinking. But pity the poor PhD students more. Already they're descending on the Sinclair holdings: fossicking through his notebooks and shopping lists, dowsing for the connections that might exist between a detail here and a fragment there, psycho-navigating the river-silt and the fly corpses. Where medieval scholars wear white cotton gloves to turn the pages of ancient manuscripts, Sinclair scholars presumably don face masks and anti-contamination suits: PhD as CSI. Hear that sound? That's the lip-smack of latex gloves being snapped on before they root around in Holding R17157/Box 9/File 4/Sinclair, I. Hear that one? That's the clickety-clack of scores of graduate dissertations currently under composition: "Textual Detritus in the London Writings of Iain Sinclair", or "Pushing the Baby Out with the Ba'ath Water: Hackney as Fallujah in Iain Sinclair's Riverine P(e)rambulations".

Don't think they aren't being written. In a little under 15 years – since the success of Lights Out for the Territory (1997) – Sinclair has gone from cult author to national treasure: quite a career path for a man who started out hawking his self-published prose-poems round the book-barrows of Farringdon and Stratford. I would guess him to be, along with his friend and mentor JG Ballard, among the most written-about of contemporary British authors. Sinclair symposia, journal special issues – they just keep coming. Neo-modernist, high-output, exceptionally gifted and prone to antic pattern-making, Sinclair is immaculately qualified for the attention of today's Eng lit academics.

How best to describe Sinclair? East London's recording angel? Hackney's Pepys? A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A Travelodge tramp (his phrase)? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (also his phrase)? A toxicologist of the 21st-century landscape? A historian of countercultures and occulted pasts? An intemperate Wall-E, compulsively collecting and compacting the city's textual waste? A psycho-geographer (from which term Sinclair has been rowing away ever since he helped launch it into the mainstream)? He's all of these, and more.

If you know anything of his work, you'll be aware that walking is his main method and the city his chief subject. The lines of inheritance back to Guy Debord and the situationists are now well established, as are those to Baudelaire's "flâneur", Thomas De Quincey, Paul Auster, Hunter S Thompson and Patrick Keiller. In London Orbital (2002), his 600-page account of walking the M25, Sinclair describes himself as a "fugueur", preferring the word for its hint of mysticism, its dissent from the pomaded preenings of the "flâneur".

Sinclair's oeuvre now runs to seven books of fiction, 14 of poetry, and 12 of "documentary", of which Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project is the most recent. The documentary work alone constitutes an extraordinary literary cartography of London and its edgelands. Over 15 years and getting on for 20,000 pages, Sinclair has delved into the history of a single East End building (Rodinsky's Room, co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein), investigated the city's interior (Lights Out for the Territory), stalked London's asphalt rimrock (London Orbital), and struck out into the GM wheatfields, light-industrial estates and "extruded exurbia" of its fringe counties (Edge of the Orison). At least three of these books are already, and deservedly, classics.

Ghost Milk stands in partnership with its immediate predecessor, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009). Hackney was a 600-page "deep map" of the area where Sinclair has lived for decades. The book sprawled, falling foul of the same mistake that did for Borges's imperial cartographers: the aspiration to an impossible 1:1 mapping of a territory. Sinclair couldn't resist jamming everything in: diary entries, interview transcripts, letters and "deep-memory interrogations", as well as descriptions of his walks and recollections. He reminds me at times of another Borges character, Funes the Memorious: the young man who, after a riding accident, finds that his memory is faultless in its recall of detail. Like Funes, Sinclair can seem cursed by hypermnesia. "The born-again flâneur," he wrote in 1997, is "a stubborn creature, interested in noticing everything." Such stubbornness brings problems as well as virtues – in particular a congested stylistic excess, and a troublesome equivalence of detail.

Ghost Milk has many of the same problems as Hackney. It's over-stuffed, indulgently prolix and maddeningly dispersive. What saves it, though – indeed, what makes it brilliant – is its fury. Anger drives the book forwards, and pulls its details into suggestive order: anger at corporate conjurings, civic hubris and "lachrymose orgies of nationalism". Ghost Milk is documentary writing as opposition, literature as resistance. Or, as Sinclair more calmly puts it, it is an example of memoir operating as "an element within a larger social argument".

His immediate argument is with the London Olympics; his broader target is those projects of civic enhancement that acclaim themselves as "regenerative" and find their expression most charismatically in architectural "grand projects": domes, stadiums, mega-sculptures and super-cities. "We live," Sinclair writes, "in the GP Era", and for him the "GP" will always be a function of egotism and profit: a longing on the part of men in suits to leave behind a legacy, and a longing on the part of developers to make a quick buck. "Ghost milk" is Sinclair's term for the cultural ooze that such projects exude: all those delivery documents, those primary strategic objectives, those maquettes and futuramas of the world-to-be. "Ghost milk," he writes, means "CGI smears . . . Real juice from a virtual host. Embalming fluid. A soup of photographic negatives . . . The universal element in which we sink and swim."

For Sinclair, the grandest of these folies de grandeur, the whitest of these white elephants, is the 2012 Olympics site, whose construction has been under way in east London for four years now. The early chapters of the book take us back to Sinclair's Stratford in the early 1970s, when he was doing hand-to-mouth day labour, working alongside Nigerian entrepreneurs and Irish brickies. He also details a series of postwar attempts to "regenerate" Hackney and Stratford, each accompanied by its signature grand project, such as Joan Littlewood's never-built "fun palace". These were all, in Sinclair's account, rehearsals for 2012, part of "the long march towards a theme park without a theme". There are hints of classic psychogeography here in this idea of a territorial imperative, of a place possessing and predetermining its own outcomes. Sinclair's Stratford is pre-lapsarian, but the seeds of its own fall are already present.

Elegiac notes are often struck. The book is dedicated to "the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments" (bulldozed to make way for the Olympic Park), its first section is entitled "Lostland", and it stands in one sense as a dark wunderkammer, memorialising the vanished and abolished of Stratford and Hackney. Entertainingly bitter chapters diarise the coming of the Games: the "plague of surveyors [and] hard-hat engineers", the serving of compulsory purchase orders, the futile local resistance, and the erection of the notorious blue fence that marked the perimeter of the site. Joggers and walkers find their usual footpaths blocked. Gurkhas are brought in to guard the "inner ring" of the main site; white-British manpower does the security grunt-work on the perimeter; unmanned surveillance drones fly high overhead; and walkers taking photographs of the fence have their film seized or their memory cards wiped.

I joined Sinclair four years ago to walk the boundary of the Olympics site, shortly after the blue fence had gone up. We walked it anti-clockwise, keeping the fence to our left, and I remember being surprised even then by the vehemence of Sinclair's anger at its presence. We ended that day at the last of the Stratford estates to hold out against the Olympic Development Authority. It was a remarkable scene; part Ballard and part Alamo. Flags of resistance drooped from the balconies of the doomed buildings, while all around the earth-movers were already at work, clearing the rubble and cleansing the soil.

"Circumambulation of the Olympic site," Sinclair confesses, "became an addiction"; his secondary addiction is to narrating those walks. Again and again he describes trying to "cut through the defensive ring" of the blue fence by means of trespass, disguise and chutzpah. But of course he's no match for the security guards and finds himself "held", "ejected" or apologetically escorted off the premises. This repeated act of frustrated pilgrimage becomes the charismatic motion of Ghost Milk: flâneurism radically repurposed, a kind of weaponised walking.

Sinclair's hatred of the Olympic project is unambiguous. But while we know what he loathes, it can be hard to tell what he loves. He wants to see the River Lea once more "shared by oarsmen, narrow-boat dwellers, dog-walkers, wanderers who were not filmed, not challenged by security, trusted to make their own mistakes". Fair enough. He wants, surely, to let Stratford and Hackney locally self-determine rather than have large-scale regeneration foisted on them. But hold on, no, because "if there is a less enticing blot in this country than the haemorrhaging roadcrash of the area surrounding the [Stratford] transport-hub station", where the air is so bad that it requires "gills and built-in decontamination filters" to breathe, then Sinclair has "been fortunate enough to avoid it". So why not regenerate central Stratford, then? Because that would be to succumb to "warped utopianism". Ah, right. There's a word that Sinclair seems to want to use but doesn't, presumably because of its recent contamination by ghost milk: that word being "community", as (perhaps) embodied in the Manor Garden Allotments and as (perhaps) connoting a local culture that is improvised, long-term and mutual, existing as an accumulation of small and reciprocally beneficial transactions.

Even as he denigrates civic utopianism, a different kind of dreaminess underwrites Sinclair's own position: a longing for a London that might well never have been. WH Auden once described his ideal landscape as one that contained water-wheels, grain-mills, limestone and obsolete machinery. What would Sinclair's ideal resemble? Railyards and pin-wheel poetry presses, certainly. Dockers and detectives rubbing shoulders in greasy-spoon cafes. Mystics, cranks and quiet pilgrims wandering together down towpaths. Urban planning would be handled by Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg would potter around handing out bennies and yodelling protest songs, the odd authenticating psychopath would occasionally commit discreet murders and, once a century, through would stride Alfred Watkins and Eric Gill, each man clutching his penis before him like a ley-liner's staff as they dowse lines of heat and force.

If you've read Sinclair before, you'll know how disorienting and exhilarating an experience it can be. If you haven't, you should – and you're in for a surprise. It can take time to acquire a reading method for Sinclair's style: time to develop the necessary stamina and the requisite orientation devices. His style is forcibly intransitive: verbs are deprived of their objects, prepositions are suppressed, conjunctions vanish, full-stops proliferate. Passage through his prose is demanding, immersion is obligatory, and cognitive dissonance is high. How do you make your way in a paragraph such as this, for instance?

I was convinced that my earlier hunch was right: buried inside the oval of the stadium was a particle accelerator. Relativity, the old Lea Valley space-time mush, was being scrambled. Outside the circuit of the blue fence, voodoo snakes, big-mouth crocodiles and eviscerated chickens were screaming on walls: Berlin '36. Mexico City '68. Munich '72.

Sinclair is often described as "digressive", but the term doesn't work, for it suggests a central path from which his divagations occur. A buzzword from the emergent critical vocabulary of "ergodic" literature may help: one doesn't read Sinclair so much as "navigate" him. It's true that opening one of his books can feel like stumbling on to a web page pre-loaded with pop-up windows. Pop! Pop! Pop! You can't close them fast enough, and eventually the screen whelps itself into incoherence. Proper nouns are especially high-density in Sinclair's prose. Placenames, cultural references and characters surface and then sink again, like chunks in a roiling pot of chowder. Sinclair veterans will know some of the characters in Ghost Milk from earlier books: Renchi Bicknell, the Blake-inspired artist and walker; the visionary Hebridean sculptor Steve Dilworth; and Sinclair's long-suffering and raspingly sceptical wife, Anna.

At one point, Sinclair deplores the Olympics site for its "refusal to connect with the street". The creation of connection is both the stylistic habit of Ghost Milk and, implicitly, its moral task. "Keeping a record of Olympic connections wherever I find them," Sinclair writes, "I snap the Bei Jing (Fish and Chips + Chinese Meals to Take Away), on a traffic island known as the Quadrant." That "+" might serve as the sign under which to read this hyperconnective book, this "museum of affinities" which has Sinclair as its madcap curator.

Connectivity can cause trouble, though. One of the book's least appealing aspects is its tendency to loose comparison: Stratford as Gaza, New Labour as Nazis, the O2 Dome as "England's Guantánamo", the Lea Valley as "our Poland, fought over by eco-romantics, entrenched Stalinists and political visionaries". The analogous is not always the same as the commensurable. Elsewhere, Sinclair's urge to connect manifests as frantic hyperlinking ("The panorama from [the] Stratford tower was echoed by the establishing shots in Bronco Bullfrog, the 1970 film by Barney Platts-Mills"; a sentence that is followed by fully five pages analysing Bronco Bullfrog) or as repetition. The department store of Bentalls in Kingston upon Thames is a "baroque reef": a nice image, until you encounter, 100 pages further on, "reef-buildings . . . in a sea of concrete" and then, 100 pages after that, "a reef of fabulous stadiums". "I feel the jolt as weary metaphors turn themselves inside out," writes Sinclair; so, at times, does the reader. But much more often you feel the jolt as new metaphors spring astonishingly into being.

Like all of Sinclair's "documentary" works, Ghost Milk proceeds by pattern rather than plot. He long ago made his "final renunciation of the burden of narrative": while the rest of us writer-walkers are pencil-chewing over the nature of our quests and how to get meaningfully from A to B, Sinclair just dodgems happily about. "I can't return to a place that is no longer there, my Olympic Park banishment is absolute. I think I'll aim at Morecambe." OK, Morecambe it is then. In this haphazard way, Stratford becomes the transport hub of the book, sending Sinclair out to the sites of other grand projects: Manchester and Hull (where Will Alsop proposed his M62 super-city), Morecambe and – by an effort of projective imagination rather than actually going there – Beijing.

Some of these side-trips feel vestigial, but Sinclair's visit to Athens – told in the penultimate chapter of the book – is superb: melancholy and acerbic. In Greece he finds Stratford's soured future; a real-life posthumous grand project. He wanders barely used stadiums and through echoey atria, and no one tries to stop him because no one cares and there's hardly anyone there. Meanwhile, off stage, the Greek economy collapses, and Sinclair understandably can't resist making a causal connection between the "nation's bankruptcy" and its Olympic folly. "The Games are just empty buildings," one Athenian tells him, "we have no use for them. But they have become monuments, so we can handle them and live with them. We are used to living among ruins. They are just ruins, they were never anything else."

The final journey in Ghost Milk is to America, where Sinclair calls in on the Harry Ransom Center to see his own archive in its final resting place: "a selective catalogue of human culture preserved against the coming nuclear winter". Don't worry – the irony isn't lost on Sinclair, who is almost always his own first and fiercest critic. He knows that in selling "the memory vault" to the Texans he has aligned himself in some sense with Seb Coe, Joan Littlewood and the other grand-projecteers: motivated, like them, by money and the thought of a legacy. For a moment, you think that the whole book has been working up to this point: that the grand project on which he's "calling time" is in fact his own writing, and that Ghost Milk is his resignation letter, published before he retires and takes up watercolours. But then Sinclair is off walking again, somewhere on the Pacific coast, and there are hints of the next book to come: "Tomorrow we would head south for that Mexico of the mind. I wanted to know just what happened when you walked thirty-five kilometres out of Guadalajara" (I'd imagine that you'd get taken hostage by a drug gang, but Sinclair seems to have survived).

"If we fail to . . . hammer out a mythology of our own, we are lost," he writes. Ghost Milk is his attempt to hammer out a mythology, or at least a language, that might contest snake-oil politics and "heritage" history. The book chronicles and contributes to a battle between cultural forms: PowerPoint presentation versus documentary non-fiction. In the end, of course, Sinclair will lose. In fact, he lost long ago. In terms of "delivery", the PPP will always beat the DN-F. Ghost milk will swill away Ghost Milk. Sinclair's acknowledgment of the futility of his task adds to the achievement of this brilliant and flawed book.

eddie
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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Fri Jul 22, 2011 10:13 pm

'When in doubt, quote Ballard': An interview with Iain Sinclair
Author: Tim Chapman • Aug 29th, 2006 •

Interview by Tim Chapman


Iain Sinclair at the Barbican. Photo: Tim Chapman, © 2006.

Iain Sinclair has been acclaimed as one of Britain’s most visionary writers and as an incomparable prose stylist. His early writing, notably Lud Heat (1975) and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), was rooted in his adopted home of East London. It did much to popularise ideas of psychogeography in Britain, and inspired such works as Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Alan Moore’s From Hell. His non-fiction Lights Out for the Territories (1997), based around a series of walks through some darker corners of London life and history, brought his vision to a wider audience.

Following the controversy over David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Sinclair was commissioned to write on the film for the BFI Modern Classics series. The resulting book, also titled Crash, was hailed by John Gray in the New Statesman as “the most intelligent guide yet to Ballard’s work”. Ballard features heavily — as a reference, or occasionally as a direct presence — in much of Sinclair’s subsequent work, frequently invoked in the novels Landor’s Tower (2001) and Dining on Stones (2004). Ballard also plays a significant role in Sinclair’s M25-circumambulating book and film London Orbital (2002) and the upcoming London: City of Disappearances (to be published by Hamish Hamilton in October).

I met Sinclair in the Barbican, the City of London Corporation’s modernist complex of high-class municipal housing and cultural facilities, which hosted the London Orbital theatrical event in October 2002. On the empty, third-floor Sculpture Court, we discussed JG Ballard and more, surrounded by high rises and interrupted only by the sounds of aircraft flying to and from London’s terrorised airports.

– Tim Chapman


NOTE: Video stills of Ballard are taken from the short film Crash! (1971), directed by Harley Cokliss, filmed among the multistorey carparks of Watford and referenced by Sinclair in the BFI book.


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Tim Chapman is a writer and journalist based in Halifax, Yorkshire. See www.2ubh.com for more.


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When did you first start reading Ballard?

In the 1960s. I think the first book I read was The Terminal Beach, and I kept picking up on him through things like New Worlds magazine. I was a bit at arm’s length at that time — I was very involved with the American Beat writers, and I saw Ballard in the lineage of William Burroughs. The whole notion of English suburbia, Shepperton, was so strange to my experience that I didn’t really engage that closely with it but I admired him very much as a pared-down stylist.

It was probably with The Atrocity Exhibition that I really recognised him as an English master. I think that’s still the book that affects me most — its use of this American material that I was interested in, and the way it puts it under such incredible pressure to achieve this astonishing paranoiac poetic, is still an example to us all.

Would you say he’s been an influence on your own writing?

Not really. I think my own writing is at absolutely the opposite extreme from Ballard’s. It’s singularly failed to be pared down and accurate and precise in physical details as his is, where you always know exactly what’s going on. My writing tends to be much baggier with more clauses tacked on. It’s more related to the kind of writing that his early partner Michael Moorcock was doing.

I started out as a film-maker in the 60s and came back to it much later on in the late 80s and 90s, getting together to make films with Chris Petit. At that time, I really came back strongly to Ballard and I think he was an influence more on the film-making than the writing. Chris himself was clearly and directly influenced by Ballard. His book Robinson is like an aftershock based on Crash. He made a film with Ballard for The Moving Picture Show at that time. By the time we were making films together, Ballard was one of the people we looked to.

I think then when I got to do a short book for the BFI on Crash, my interest was more in Ballard than in Cronenberg. Having met him, we became friendly. My book London Orbital was one that interested him because it was dealing with borderlands, liminal spaces, the motorway corridor, and all the things he’s written about for years. At that point, he really was a direct influence — not in the style of how I write, but more in the way that his vision of England was something that I was extremely drawn to.

You said in the acknowledgements to the BFI book that it was proposed at the strategic moment when you wanted an excuse to meet Ballard.

Exactly. I thought he’d really got it right. It never was science fiction, it was hyper-sharp reportage. His reality of the 60s had now come into place in the English landscape. That kind of world he’s endlessly talked about — retail parks and marinas and executive homes, and this list that pours out of him on ticker tape — all of that was now the landscape of England. I think we are a motorway culture, and he was the prophet of that. I really did want an excuse, if that was the word, to meet him and talk to him. Of course, when you do talk to him, what you get is almost exactly what you know from having read the books and the previous interviews. He’s quite a guarded person, quite contained and very much a solitary voyager. He’s lived in this time capsule and seen everything, and is now in his later career becoming a kind of stoic comedian. I think he’s getting quite funny in the last books — the satire is beginning to bite.


Photo: Tim Chapman.

I’d been reading your books for a while when the BFI book came out, and thought it wasn’t an obvious combination.

Funnily enough, the first actual physical connection was in a film from Mary Harron, who’s now a well-known Hollywood film-maker. She was working for the BBC Late Show and she was commissioned to make a film about Docklands and Canary Wharf as it was being built. I was invited to be one of the voices with Ballard. As the author of High-Rise, he was seen to be prophetic of this landscape, and he was saying that this is a future that he quite looks forward to. He liked the idea of Docklands. I was being quite apocalyptic and gloomy about it, looking at it from a more social and political perspective, and so curiously we were placed side by side in this now obscure and lost film. As the years went on, probably I’ve shifted more to his position.

Harron filmed American Psycho with Christian Bale, who was young Jim in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

Yes, she’s an interesting woman. The interesting thing about it was most of these films for the Late Show were made in about two days. But she was tough enough that she had a proper length of time to do this. She was out in this landscape filming for weeks at a time, and persuading Ballard to appear, which is not necessarily always easy either.

I dug out a review of the BFI book by John Gray at the London School of Economics, where he said “the juxtaposition of JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair is far from obvious. Their views on the political and cultural scene from which they are equally estranged are quite different, even opposed”.

I don’t know that they are opposed. Maybe it would have seemed like that at that time, but I think now they would be seen to be quite similar in some ways. I think they’re quite interesting to juxtapose because he’s stayed out in Shepperton since the 1960s and he’s written essentially the same coded arrangements — every single book is a repetition, an extension of the same riff — in the same way that I’ve been in Hackney in the inner city since the 1960s and have also essentially written the same paradigms over and over. Except I kind of felt I’d reached a dead end — the city centre was becoming so heritaged and corrupted, I thought the interesting move was out to the margin, to the motorway, to the M25. As soon as that happened, it’s invading his territory. I certainly felt homage had to be paid. I was walking around the M25 and it was very necessary to stop off at Shepperton and see him, to visit this place of reservoirs and aircraft and future terror.

What was the genesis of the London Orbital project?

I felt quite strongly that with the kind of complicated dense fictions that I’d been writing, there was no place for them in the market. Lights Out for the Territory, which was centred on walks and explorations within London, had been much more successful. I needed to do another book which appeared to be a documentary but went off in other directions. One day when I was out walking up the River Lea to the point where it hit the M25 at Waltham Abbey, I thought this is it. This is the future England. London itself, by being completely enclosed in a motorway, has become a kind of concrete island. The obvious space to explore is this, with this pilgrim journey. It’s a book you can describe in a single sentence — a walk around the M25 — so everything clicked into place. Once I’d taken that decision, the book was there waiting to be written.


The Seer of Shepperton: “I was interested in the gauge of psychoarchitectonics” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).

Was Ballard always part of that plan?

Yeah. I thought the main figures I could see emerging from this landscape were Bram Stoker to the east, because of Carfax Abbey and Purfleet which is the point where the M25 crosses the Thames with the QEII bridge; HG Wells’ War of the Worlds out on the other side in Woking in Surrey, where the Martian invasion takes place; and Ballard himself at Shepperton. That was always my triangulation of the three energy points, the three great metaphors that described that topography. Ballard in a sense is reprising and working over Wells, in this sense of terrorism and viral invasion. In War of the Worlds, the invaders come in through Shepperton — they actually cross the river at that point — and the river turns into this red weed which is very much like the atmosphere of The Drought.

Wells is often seen as primarily a science fiction writer, but he did a lot of political and social comment which is often overlooked.

Ballard’s politics are quite curious. I don’t know whether you could call him conservative, with a small ‘c’, because he celebrates the nature of the bourgeois in its exile: the people that live in these kinds of flats that surround us now, who are anonymous and separated from the mob. Whereas his early partner, Michael Moorcock, said he was a man of the urban mob, who celebrates the crowds and smells of cafes and markets and all of that stuff, which is totally alien to Ballard. He’d like to chuck away all the old buildings, pull them down, get rid of all that heavy 19th-century furniture and have everything straight out of an Ikea catalogue. In that sense, I think there’s something conservative, but in other senses there’s something incredibly anarchic and furious about what he does, which doesn’t fit with any contemporary sense of politics. He doesn’t belong, he’s completely an outsider, although when you meet him he appears to be quite an Establishment person. He’s got a very fruity voice and genial persona, and would fit into the colonial society in which he grew up.

He did declare in the late 70s and 80s that he was a great admirer of Mrs Thatcher, but whether that was the politics or the charisma of it…

I think maybe the sort of psychosexual politics of Thatcher, in the same way that John Gray was a member of the Thatcher thinktanks. He was a significant Thatcher admirer and advocate at that period, but had a complete change of heart and is now violently opposed to American policy and all these things she was supportive of in the ’80s. He’s rather embarrassed about it. There’s interesting things happening there politically.

Ballard said a few years ago that he’s getting more left-wing as he gets older.

It’s quite interesting, because usually it’s the other way around. Someone like Kingsley Amis, who was an early supporter of Ballard, supposedly started off as quite socialist but gradually moved to extreme right to become this kind of Blimpish drunk at the end of his career. His feeling about Ballard’s writing also shifts with the years to become much more uncomfortable about where it’s going, as he’s obviously not the science fiction writer that Amis thought he was at the beginning.


Photo: Tim Chapman.

Could you talk about the London Orbital event here at the Barbican?

London Orbital was never just a book. It was also a TV film made with Chris Petit. The fact of it being a film meant that it couldn’t follow the procedures of walking, which is what I’d done in the book. The whole point was to walk the motorway spaces, and thereby to suck out information slowly and gradually from the ground. Chris is famous as a maker of road movies, and he couldn’t cope with filming the walking aspect because by the time he’d set up his camera the walkers had gone over the horizon. He shifted it all into the car. Once you were in the car, you were much closer to entering a Ballardian space. We accumulated all this road footage. Chris, in the end, discovered the only way to do it was never to switch the camera off. The only way to make sense of the road was to keep the camera running right the way round the whole thing.

It became obvious that maybe the meeting place between the book and the film would be to do a theatre event here at the Barbican, at which a number of people who appeared in the book would appear as themselves. There would be music, there would be three screens for which Chris went out and shot new footage of continual M25 progression. Ballard was supposed to appear here as the star of the show. He agreed to do that, which was surprising. We were just going to have a little discussion, a conversation, he wouldn’t have to read or do anything else. But on the day the phone rang and he said he wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t going to come. I wasn’t altogether surprised because he really doesn’t like doing these things very much.

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

Excerpted from ‘What I Believe’ by J.G. Ballard, first published in Interzone #8, 1984

What happened was we made a photographic life-size cut-out of Ballard — there’d been a piece in one of the Sunday newspapers about us and we just blew up that photograph. Chris and I recited alternately this Ballardian screed, ‘What I Believe’, which I think is a terrific take on Ballard. In a sense, his presence was there perfectly. It was not actually necessary to have him physically, and of course he appeared in the London Orbital film as well. At the end of the film there’s this nice moment where he’s saying “Iain, I want you to go out and blow up the Bentall Centre, I want you to destroy Bluewater“, which has now become the subject of his new book Kingdom Come. It’s also been invoked by the present terror alerts at Heathrow Airport which seem to stem in part from places like High Wycombe which is exactly in this Ballardian Thames corridor.

How was the event received?

It wasn’t really received at all — it was an invisible event. As far as I know, practically no one wrote about it. Those that did were kind of uncomfortable because they liked the music, or certain aspects of the music, but didn’t like other stuff, so it was one of those invisible events. The interesting thing was the Barbican was expecting to sell 400 or 500 seats, which is what they’d allowed for, and it completely sold out. It took 2000 seats.

One of the stranger things was within it: there was a whole thing about Essex criminals who were involved in ecstasy and drug wars and Range Rover murders. Some of these figures were in the audience and took a deep objection to the stuff I was reading out about them, and tried to get round the back to kill me. There was a kind of interesting subtext of drama going on. It was almost a Ballardian event in which he was pulling the strings without being there at all. It was actually quite funny.

There’s going to be a repeat of this event here for a book called London: City of Disappearances, for which Ballard has contributed a piece about the Westway. I’ll certainly try and go out and interview him on film, and have a film to show rather than expect him to turn up this time.



The Barbican. Photo: Tim Chapman.

It was said at the time that Ballard had never actually been to the Barbican before.

He said that, which was very surprising, but in a sense he doesn’t need to because it’s almost like his mental landscape. He did say to me he’d never really been to the East End of London — he had no real interest or desire in seeing it. He’d done a car trip once to go and have a look at the Millennium Dome but he never got out of the car — just drove past it and went back again to Shepperton.

It’s probably the best way to see it.

It probably is, but this is the absolute opposite of what I feel. Always, the way is that you walk. You start from wherever you are and you walk slowly through the city, and your narrative is revealed. He just doesn’t feel the need to work in that way at all. He fillets from magazines, watches random TV, and looks at technical reports, scientific journals, and just cuts up and accumulates this material. In the 60s, he was using it fairly straight in a fragmented way, and now it’s become finessed into something that’s almost like a standard literary novel, but once you look below the surface it’s something else.


Photo: Tim Chapman.

Walking and driving is something you riff on in Dining on Stones: pods versus peds.

I had this insight when I was walking down the A13 when I walked into this Travelodge. I was amazed to see that what I thought was this food dispenser giving you pies was actually filled with books. I looked at this and thought god, all of these writers are either walking writers or driving writers. Most people fit into one or the other of these categories. Moorcock I think would be very much a walking writer, even though his foot has gone now and he’s in a wheelchair. His novels are walking novels, and he never did learn to drive. Whereas Ballard, you can’t really see him getting out of the car. Everything is there in this car journey between Shepperton and West London, where he comes in on a regular basis. I thought most people could be put one way or the other.

With Ballard, it’s not so much driving I’d associate with him as flying — aeroplanes, low-flying aircraft.

There’s a lot of flying — he was a pilot. I think he does have a god’s-eye view of things, he’s able to be right up there. You can see him in this building here, the man on the balcony. He’s very much that, sometimes with a camera. There’s a photograph I used in the BFI book with the woman on the balcony, by Helmut Newton who he admires. It’s looking from inside a flat out to the woman who’s maybe naked from behind on the balcony, and looking down into the street. I thought that foreground-middleground-distance is exactly the Ballardian perspective, which is reprised in the Cronenberg film of Crash, quite near the beginning. That’s why I think he was very happy to see the film move to Canada, to Toronto. That was fine, because to him it doesn’t have to be specific to London, whereas the way that Chris Petit and I think about it is: it’s very much a London book, about the Heathrow gas stations and the backroads between Shepperton and Heathrow. He doesn’t need that.

Since the BFI book, most of your work seems to have been stuffed full of Ballard references. As you say in Dining on Stones: “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”

Yeah — he’s so sharp. I’ve been reading back through the interviews in the Re/Search book, and every little aphorism that was very savage and strange at that moment seems incredibly pertinent to this one. Once I was writing about the edges of London, the A13 corridor, down there his voice is playing in your ear the whole time as you have the queues of low-flying aircraft and the reservoirs, and the idea that you could be blown out of the sky or fly straight into a towerblock at any moment. All of that is his world. And the death of Diana — all the journalists rung him up because it was exactly the kind of thing he’d always been describing or thinking about in terms of James Dean or Jayne Mansfield.

You said in the film of London Orbital that he is an icon now, with his own credo. Is it just the fact that he’s been around so long?

I think it’s partly that. It’s quite interesting that in the 60s he’s very much a marginal figure. He’s got a cult following but he doesn’t really register in the mainstream apart from with one or two writers who support him very strongly. In the ’70s, he’s actually become a kind of pariah — Cape, who were publishing Crash, were wearing gloves to do it. Then everything changes with Empire of the Sun — it’s the moment he becomes supremely visible. There’s a Spielberg version of Ballard, which would have been unthinkable.

Then the general middlebrow consensus swerves round and thinks of him as a different kind of writer to what he actually is. He’s seen as a great guru of the West, but the people who are doing that very rarely refer back to the earlier books. They go back maybe to Crash, because they know it’s a film, and they think that’s shocking, but Crash is only a version of what’s in The Atrocity Exhibition which is very rarely referred to, or any of those earlier pieces.

I think he’s been reinvented — not by himself, because he’s carried on doing what he’s always done — but by the literary consensus who have reinvented him and think of him as being something really that he isn’t: this sort of genial but provocative figure sitting out there writing about the Metro Centre and shopping malls and stuff. I can see the reviews even now. But the real early energy and madness is still not appreciated.



James Graham Ballard: “…transcending death, charming motorways, integrating
with birds, enlisting the confidences of madmen” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss)

I think the problem is it’s almost too easy to reduce him to a set of icons — the car crash, the concrete flyover.

That is obviously what’s happened. You see him constantly quoted or brought into catalogues at the Tate Modern and glossy magazines. He’s the first name you think of to underwrite these sorts of things. There was an event at the Serpentine a couple of weeks back with Rem Koolhaas, the architect, doing a 24-hour interview with different people. I was one of the people there. I said I assume you’ve got JG Ballard. He said well, he wouldn’t come here, but he was there as a presence on tape. And yet he’s not really interested in the city, there’s this polemic on the city but the city doesn’t mean anything to him. I don’t think he could describe it, he hardly knows the city. Maybe he comes in to see his publishers or have a meal or go to the Tate, but really it’s of no importance to him and his mental universe.

It’s interesting you mention Koolhaas. At the architecture exhibition here at the Barbican, Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture [1956-2006], there’s an installation of a theoretical work by Koolhaas, Exodus [1972], which is about placing a great strip of ultra-luxury accommodation across London so it divides it in two, and seeing what’ll happen. I thought that’s an unwritten Ballard story.

Absolutely. While other writers were just not thinking about those kinds of things, he was. He didn’t discriminate, he didn’t have this snobbery of being a literary writer. He felt that there were things he could take from the most debased forms of public culture. He would come out and say I think everyone should watch television for eight hours a day in random fashion — there’s no good or bad, you just jump about and let it flow over you, with your glass of whisky. It just meshes together and creates its own strange poetic. Nobody else was saying that at that time. Nobody else liked roads, nobody else liked petrol stations, apart from a few nouveau-pop artists in America. So he’s gone from a position of being right out there and advocating hateful stuff and disliking Ralph Nader and not being politically correct and not being green or ecologically sound, and suddenly here he is as a nice old man.

It’s rather like what happened with Kafka, who was very much a fringe character in his lifetime but later became this iconic figure with his own adjective.

Obviously Ballard has his own adjective in the same way, so he’s very similar to Kafka. Except Kafka was probably even more extreme and much more invisible than Ballard. I mean, Ballard has been there for a very long time in various ways. The interesting thing is that by doing exactly the same things all the time, his status and position have shifted significantly. He’s gone from one extreme to the other. Whereas — and I keep coming back to Moorcock — I think Moorcock was a lot more populist in the 60s, but because his books now are large and unwieldy and complex they’re much less read now than Ballard. They’ve drifted off somewhere where the fans are following him but the general readership just don’t acknowledge him any more. That’s quite a curious thing.

As you say, Ballard’s been doing the same thing all along. Maybe it’s just taken this long for the rest of the world to catch up?

He has done the same thing, but the mode in which it’s done has shifted from something that’s manufactured or tooled to fit in magazines where there was a market for these short sharp pieces, to something that now sits and pretends to be a mainstream literary novel. It comes out looking like a literary novel — Cocaine Nights has almost the form of an Agatha Christie novel, it’s comfortable — except that they’re doing stranger things. There’s a much darker kick in it.

Cocaine Nights was promoted as summer beach reading.

Exactly, which is good too. And things like Alex Garland’s The Beach clearly derive from Ballard. There is a line now from Ballard through Martin Amis and Will Self and Alex Garland – young, hip writers who have taken their tricks from Ballard. And yet I don’t think any of them have what he had to start with.

Garland also scripted the British zombie movie 28 Days Later — he said that large parts of that were a deliberate homage to Ballard. Alan Warner’s another one.

Sure. He’s one of the generators of this new kind of literature.

Ballard’s also doing a lot of work with newspaper columns and book reviews. In Landor’s Tower, you have a mock book review for one of your characters which you attribute to Ballard.

Right! I’d forgotten that.



Photo: Tim Chapman.

“In the canted floors of these multistorey carparks, rephotographed from surveillance tapes…”

Ah yes. That was written in parallel with making a film called Asylum. In the same way the London Orbital book and film were going on together, this film of Asylum had a very strongly Ballardian presence without Ballard being in it, although Moorcock was in it. It finishes up in the Heathrow motorway corridor with planes flying low with a desperate sense of threat — also the shimmering landscapes of those reservoirs and all of that. So, in a sense, by physically invading this territory to make this film my mind was totally set on Ballard. When I was writing the book at the same time, which criss-crosses its inspiration from the film, obviously Ballard was in mind and I came up with this riff in homage to him.

Did you find he was an easy writer to pastiche?

He’s a very easy writer to pastiche badly. I think he’s there with someone like Graham Greene as a stylist. There used to be a New Statesman competition to parody Greene’s style, and Greene came second when he entered.

You mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as one of the most important books for you. In the BFI book you mention the film of that which was then a work in progress.

Has that finished now?

It has. It’s out on DVD.

I look forward to seeing that. I saw it at the ICA or somewhere as a work in progress. It struck me as probably the most Ballardian of the various films. It worked on his own terms and is therefore likely to be the least popular. I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s sort of Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book. The Cronenberg is interesting but it’s not remotely in the spirit or the time of the book. But The Atrocity Exhibition I thought was pretty fair.

Simon interviewed the director, Jonathan Weiss. He seems quite an angry man — angry about the film’s mention in the BFI book, and about various things you’d written.

Well, I don’t know. When I saw it, it was certainly a work in progress. It wasn’t finished, and it was announced as such.

You did say in the BFI book that from what you’d seen you thought it was almost too faithful to the book.

I think there was a sense of that. It’s a bit inverted commas, a bit in aspic. They’re treating these literary classics from another era as if they were heritage Dickens. Probably that’s a mistake — you’ve got to really get down and hack it to pieces and find something that really works in film terms, something that honours the spirit of the original book. You can’t just make the film of the book — it doesn’t work.

One thing I find interesting about how you write and how Ballard writes is the way identity is used in a fictional context: particularly in your earlier novels, and with Ballard in Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women and, in a very different way, Crash.

None of them are him, and none of them are me. Crash is interesting because there’s this extreme character and he gives him his own name. It’s not him but it represents some avatar of him. When I met Claire Walsh, who he calls his girlfriend, he said here’s Claire, she’s the woman in Crash. It’s quite hard to move beyond that, it’s just a shocking idea. And yet it doesn’t actually mean this is the woman in Crash or this is JG Ballard. It’s just a device, a kind of honest device in a way, and also a convenience. That’s really what I’ve done. When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a kind of theatre of the world and you push some element of yourself that’s convenient into it.

How much do you distinguish between your books which are sold as fiction and the ones that are sold as documentary or travel?

I don’t at all in terms of writing them, but in terms of presenting or marketing them. The ones that are called travel or whatever now have a kind of market. They can be sold, but the ones that are supposedly just straight fiction really don’t have much of a market any more. I would tend to shape anything I do to pretend to be document or travel even though it probably won’t be. Whereas I suppose most of what Jim has done appears to be fiction, but you could make a pretty good case for it being travel or art criticism or social criticism or polemic — all of these things can be absorbed within what seems to be a fiction. Kingdom Come could have been stripped down to be a series of savage essays or presentations about the motorway corridor with dramatised events happening in the middle.



“Crushed breasts on door handles”: Fiction as a branch of neurology (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).

Ballard has said in the past that if he had his time again he’d be a painter. It seems now that he almost wants to be a sociologist.

Maybe not so much a painter as a very good art critic — not in an academic sense, but as someone with the language and the eye to break an image down. That takes in being a form of social critic or geographer, an essayist in the sense that someone like Paul Virilio is. There is an interface between the world of the catalogue and copywriting for Mercedes cars and the film script for a porn movie — all of these things intersect in something that he’s not embarrassed to cut together.

Talking about geography, you’re very much associated with the psychogeography movement…

Have you seen this book that’s just come out on psychogeography that tries to incorporate Ballard into that group? You make of him what you will, but I don’t think he’s in any way a psychogeographer, and I don’t think he’d use those terms himself at all. I think the aspect of him they’ve drawn on is the notion of a spatial geography, of particular lines and movements that you make in describing a city’s geometry, which he does with the multistorey carparks and bridges and motorways and all of that.

Which is maybe closer to Debord’s original ideas.

Much closer than to the London occult versions that have appeared.

There’s another quote from Ballard in the BFI book, on the Watford car parks: “I was quite interested in the gauge of psychoarchitectonics.”

Wonderful. He must have been one of the very first people to get interested in Watford.

The more recent books — Millennium People and Kingdom Come — are more explicitly concerned with London and its environs.

A kind of London. The London that Millennium People is concerned with, and the bits of the centre that appear in Kingdom Come, are so very strange, they’re completely surreal and unlike actual London. He talks about a character in Kingdom Come living in Chelsea and his address is given as Chelsea Harbour, which isn’t even in Chelsea — it’s not a harbour either. It’s an unplaced London, a generic catalogue London that he uses as a shorthand, but it’s not an inhabited city. It’s got no landmarks, nothing fixed, and I don’t think he wants it to be fixed. I think he wants it to be fluid, and he wants a sense of alienation, almost like being in this estranged movie at the edge of things.

Whereas your work is very site specific.

It starts with that, and then it pushes through into whatever’s on the other side of it. But it usually starts with something very very specific and concrete.

Millennium People, and the basic idea behind all this middle-class anomie, seems quite specifically London. I think he said he got the idea from his own daughters’ problems in finding affordable living and maintaining that lifestyle.

Funnily enough, after this I’m seeing someone who lives in the Barbican who’s writing a strange thesis. In it I saw something he quoted from Siegfried Kracauer, who was part of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, talking about how the revolt will come from the middle classes, from the anomie of the middle classes. In a way, that idea is exactly what Ballard’s talking about in Millennium People.

In the context of early 1930s Germany, it seems quite different.

It’s a very different thing, but now Ballard sees fascism arising out of the shopping mall and the airport satellite cities — a fascism based on an advocacy of sport; football hooligans — and blending into that, a very strange picture.

It’s interesting he’s writing that at a time when there’s been a resurgence of BNP support in the eastern fringes of London.

Geographically, in the 70s and early 80s, all of it was based in places like Brick Lane and Bethnal Green at the centre. Those people have now moved out into Essex, and it’s an Essex phenomenon. I don’t think in actuality you’d find any trace of it in those Heathrow satellite towns, but there’s no reason you can’t have it as a literary conceit.



Drowned Barbican. Photo by Tim Chapman.

Do you see Ballard as a London writer? Some of the early novels like The Drowned World were very specifically about the parts of west London where he used to work.

I don’t, no. Obviously London has been one of the locations of his imaginative world, but it just seems like it’s a convenient set. He could just as well have been writing about Lisbon or anywhere else he happened to find himself. He doesn’t thirst for the particulars of the city — he’s not interested in the dust and the detail. It is just a manipulated set, and I think it’s not to do with London but very much to do with being an observer on the edge of things, with the motorways that take you away somewhere else, and the anonymous tower blocks which are a kind of nowhere. He’s a great writer of these nowheres — he’s a defender of them.

With Kingdom Come, as you say, you were given this assignment to destroy Bluewater. Did you fail him? Does he have to do it himself?

I did my best — I gave it a good kicking in the book. Bluewater I thought was one of the most de-energising places on the face of the earth. It’s down in this chalk quarry, which makes it different from any other huge mall. Essentially it’s just a car park — the convenience is that it’s somewhere you can put your car. Shopping is completely separate from it. In fact I’ve never met anyone who could shop there at all — all they can do is walk round the galleries and use one of the many many coffee shops.

He’s never visited, obviously. The Bentall Centre has got these dancing bears which appear in Kingdom Come — I think that’s one of the few places he does go to on a regular basis. In a sense, the specifics of that do re-emerge in this fictional universe he’s created.

Is London: City of Disappearances an edited anthology?

No, it’s a bit more than that. What I did was to feel — in a very opposite way to Ballard, who couldn’t get this idea at all — that London at the moment is somewhere with endless erasures and reinventions and disappearances and amnesia. A lot of important cultural stories and figures were wiped out, buildings would disappear and something else is put up in their places. There’s a constantly shifting landscape, but it’s still very solid and tangible.

I wanted to do a book about that and, rather than me writing a novel or a document from A to Z, it would be much more interesting to invite a whole bunch of quite disparate people to send in their reports. They might take the form of fiction or a document. I had this wad of material and I divided it up partly topographically by zone and partly by theme, and at the end of each section there were gazetteer entries so it’s like a sort of mock guidebook. I tried to shape it like a novel so you could read it right the way through. Where I felt I needed to shift things I’d write a piece myself. I do feel at the end that it makes a new kind of novel, a sort of communal novel which I was editing more in the sense of editing a film rather than editing a book. The result isn’t something I could have prophesied, but it is a new form I think.


“Iain, I want you to blow up Bluewater.” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).

Ballard is in there more as a presence rather than with the piece he wrote himself, which is very short; it has actually appeared somewhere obscure once before, anyway. He describes the Westway so that in a sense the landscape around the Westway is what disappears. He’s just interested in this fragment that could have been the beginning of a new city but which was never followed up. It was just left, like the ruins of an Inca monument.

I think I know what you mean about disappearances — I lived down here, close to the old Gainsborough Studios in Hoxton. I went by this morning and didn’t recognise it.

It’s very smart and modernist flats. The whole of the canal has now undergone this Ballardian process whereby all the warehouses have been turned into loft living for city folk. It is actually a city, a water city, even though the canal is decaying into a drought-like condition, undergoing hideous transformation and being choked with weed, but along it is somewhere that is nowhere. People who live there don’t really know where they are, they just get on the canal bank on their bicycles and commute between the City and Docklands. It actually is a new city — I think it should be called Ballard eventually, or Neo-Shepperton.



“Bring Me the Head of Alfred Hitchcock”. Photo: Tim Chapman.

The flats themselves at the Gainsborough are fairly generic — you could see them in Manchester or Leeds — but at the middle of it there’s this huge semi-submerged head of Alfred Hitchcock.

Fantastic. Of course, he made his early silent films in those studios and grew up not far away. Maybe we should have a submerged head of Ballard out in the middle of this, to go with John Milton in the church down there.

Psychogeography is quite a buzzword now; Will Self’s got his column in the Independent…

Which to me has absolutely no connection whatsoever to whatever psychogeography was originally, or in its second incarnation. It was something very specific in Paris in the 50s and 60s — the Lettrists and Situationists had this politicised conceptual movement called Psychogeography. Then it was reinvented into London with people like Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association, who mixed those ideas with ideas of ley lines and Earth mysteries and cobbled it together as a provocation, and I took it on from that point. Now it’s just become this brand name for more or less anything that’s vaguely to do with walking or vaguely to do with the city. It’s a new form of tourism.

Is there any mileage left in it?

No, I don’t think so, other than if someone can brand it and promote it, which they are doing. Once these little pocket books appear with an easy readers’ guide which can take you back to Ballard or de Quincey or Debord or wherever you want to go, it’s a route map where everything’s laid out for you. It’s very strange. I’m not quite sure why that happened.

What other writers at the moment do you think are worth reading?

Unfortunately I tend to be reading older material that’s related to whatever projects I’m working on. As I’m working on a book about Hackney, where I’ve lived for so long without ever really thinking about it, I’m reading books by forgotten or half-forgotten Hackney writers like Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, and Harold Pinter’s book The Dwarfs.

Are you working on anything else?

No, that’s all consuming. In the light of having done the Disappearances book, I’m working in a new way, which is going out and carrying out huge numbers of interview. I’m leading the people I’m interviewing to some extent into particular locations and particular figures who I think represent whatever Hackney was in this period before it started to disappear, which I think it will on the back of the Olympic thing. I’m not sure how that’s going to work. It’s going to be partly memoir, partly a series of edited transcripts, partly in essay form — it’ll take its own form as it goes on. After that, for the first time ever, I’ll have reached the end of a contract. I’ll have to stop and think what I can do next, if not back to bookdealing.


Photo: Tim Chapman.

Are you planning anything more on the film side?

There’s one thing on the distant horizon. It’s called Beijing Orbital. When I was in Stavangar in Norway at one of these strange conferences, I saw a presentation by an assistant of Rem Koolhaas which was about the China TV building he’d built. He showed this virtual version of a city with seven orbital motorways just spreading out from the centre of this very traditional city into the desert, and the incredible pieces that were going up. I thought my god, it will be amazing to travel around these seven orbital motorways. Of course, that is relatively attractive to be made into a film. I think it will be reasonably possible to get a commission for that, which may also become a book. It will also involve me doing a lot of other things — circling round China as to what China means to different places in Europe, in the sense of Fu Manchu or people being drowned in Morecombe, all these stories, before I even embark on a journey to the place itself.

Have you thought of doing more comics? You worked with Dave McKean on Slow Chocolate Autopsy.

I’d like to. With Dave McKean it was just starting to get interesting. I was just beginning to understand what the form can do. Apart from the comic itself, he’s a terrific designer of a whole book — you’ve got his typography and the way he plays with images. It’d be great to do another one, but I don’t know if the opportunity will ever come up.

Any final thoughts?

I think we’ve covered the ground pretty thoroughly.


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 18, 2011 9:23 pm

The Olympic effect on east London's small businesses

All over the East End, cafes, shops and taxi firms are rushing to rebrand themselves in time for 2012

Emine Saner

guardian.co.uk, Saturday 17 December 2011 12.05 GMT


The Olympic Kebab shop in east London. Photograph: Open Agency

"The Olympics is just for a few days, and people are coming from all over the world," says Mohammad Ali, a used car salesman at Olympic Motors in east London. "Think of people coming from America or Holland! They won't be coming here to buy a new car." Will the Olympics infuse the business with mystique, glamour, excitement? He laughs. "It will have no effect whatsoever."

Olympic Motors is one of the businesses featured in a new book Olympics: a snapshot history of the Olympic Games, created by Open Agency, a design company. Martyn Routledge, the agency's creative director, would cycle through London's East End every day to get to work and started noticing small shops and businesses springing up with the name "Olympic". "The first one I saw was Stratford Olympic Furniture. I stopped and photographed it. Then the next day, I saw an Olympic kebab shop and I just kept photographing them." Within 12 months, he had 150 images – around 70 of which have made it into the book.

There are kebab shops, convenience stores, taxi companies, hairdressers and numerous cafes. Some businesses, sadly, are no more. Olympic skips, for instance – its blue skips had the five rings spray-painted on the sides of them – didn't last long enough to vie for position as the games' official skip providers.

Others have clearly received a visit from the organisers' copyright protectors. One cafe in Stratford changed its name from Cafe Olympic to Cafe Lympic simply by painting over the "O". My favourite is the car wash which spray-painted "OLYMPIC" above its own sign. It is Routledge's favourite too. "The typography looks quite rough, but in a way it echoes the edginess of the official logo," he says.

So are these businesses cynically cashing in or celebrating the games?

"I think you can take it either way. People are inspired and excited and want to show their support. This is how real people and businesses are interpreting it. This is the real legacy to me – small businesses who want to be a part of it. And why not?"

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:07 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:08 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:10 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:11 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:13 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:14 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:15 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:17 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:18 pm


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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 3:23 am


Jim Sillavan on London 2012 and the Eurozone crisis.

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:33 pm

Olympic Village – review

London's Olympic Village will be home to 17,000 athletes this summer and a new community when the Games are over. They'll find a development of long-distance vision marred by short-sighted flaws

Rowan Moore

The Observer, Sunday 8 January 2012


'Thought and quality': generous landscaping softens the impact of the development.

The huge housing estate is something that went out of fashion at about the same time as the Osmonds. Its reputation was as low as a British Leyland car or the Nixon presidency, and it was less likely, it seemed, to come back into favour, especially if it was made of concrete and funded by the government. Examples such as the crescent-shaped blocks in Hulme, Manchester or the slabs of the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, London have been and are being torn down. Yet thanks to the magic of the Olympics, planned, publicly funded concrete housing on a grand scale has made a comeback. The rather important question is whether it will work.

The athletes' village has been built to house the 17,000 competitors and officials in the Olympic Games, after which it will become a new neighbourhood of about 1,400 affordable homes and another 1,400 for profit. Its success is vital to London 2012's hopes of legacy: if it prospers, office blocks are likely to rise around it and dreams of regeneration – the theoretical justification of the whole Olympic exercise – are more likely to come true.

Most housing nowadays consists of expedient, opportunistic developments thrown up with minimal consideration for the larger area of which they will be a part. The athletes' village is almost alone in including such things as a school, a health clinic and shops, and for being built to a plan by the architects Fletcher Priest, Arup and West 8 that envisages generous and well-maintained landscaping. It includes such radical ideas as balconies that are big enough for a table and chairs and it is made of solid, enduring-looking stuff rather than the ticky-tacky cladding favoured by most urban home-builders.

It seeks to emulate the much-loved planning of Maida Vale and other parts of Victorian west London, where the interiors of blocks are given over to gardens shared by residents. These gardens are raised above street level to allow concealed parking underneath, which is a clever way of keeping cars out of sight. Around the bottom of the blocks are bands of what are called "town houses" – three-storey units with further floors of flats stacked on top of them. The idea is to create "active frontages", to animate the streets by having the units' front doors on them and also to cater for residents who would like a house or at least something house-like.

All this planning is good, even great, given that it is so unusual in new housing developments. Reviving the Maida Vale model is often talked about but rarely done, and although the athletes' village version hasn't quite captured the lushness and generosity of the originals, it is at least there. It is also welcome that there is a degree of calm to the buildings, compared to the frenzied gesticulations, the visual shouts of "buy me, buy me" that typify most works of regeneration.

But it also has to be said that the look of the village is a tad forbidding, not indeed very villagey at all. It consists of a series of cuboid blocks of eight to 12 storeys, clad in prefabricated concrete panels, laid out on a rigid rectangular grid. They are repetitive in form and colour but varied in detail, as some of the country's better-respected housing architects were given the job of variegating the external treatment. Their construction technology is essentially that of those much-criticised estates of the 1960s and of East German plattenbau, though, it's to be hoped, with higher specifications.

Potentially mitigating features, such as pavilions planned for the open areas, have been sliced out by budget savings and opportunities for intimacy or unforced variety are lost. The bands of "row houses", for example, could have been more clearly expressed; as it is, they are submerged by the mass of flats above them. There are the attempts of different architects to liven up the basic formula – some brightly painted panels on some balconies, reproductions of the Elgin marbles embossed on some walls, explorations of the expressive possibilities of rearranging windows – but they can only go so far.

In a former job I helped to select these architects, and they are all fine people, but they struggle to overcome the relentless order of the grid and the construction. Again, there is nothing wrong with regularity, and architects Fletcher Priest cite John Nash's classical facades around London's Regent's Park as a precedent, but Nash had a lightness of touch that has here gone missing.

Meanwhile, although the original masterplan had the best intentions to join up the village with nearby neighbourhoods, it has a disconnected feel. If you want to walk to the centre of Stratford, and the tube station, you must first cross the giant concrete trench of Stratford International station and then creep round the inhospitable edge of the Westfield shopping centre or else plunge through the middle of its shopathon.

Westfield, meanwhile, presents an unlovely wall and roofscape of car parks to the new housing. All this construction – many billions worth of station, shopping and housing – has been delivered in the past few years, with the help of public money and the close oversight of public planning authorities, yet it does not feel like a work of unified intelligence.

The strengths and weaknesses of the athletes' village reflect the way it was achieved. It started off, in the mid-90s, as a bold plan by the developers Chelsfield for a "new metropolitan centre", with homes, offices and shopping, which was drawn up over six years of planning and consultation. In 2005, London won the bid for the 2012 games, while Chelsfield and its properties were sold and resold. Westfield took over the shopping part while another company, Lend Lease, took over the housing.

When the credit crunch hit, Lend Lease decided it could not raise the money to build the village, so the government took it over. Now it has been sold back to the private sector, in the form of Qatari Diar and the British company Delancey, which will take it over after the games.

This history is reflected in the fabric. Because the shopping and the housing are in separate ownerships, there is not much care given to the way they join up. As there were different owners at different times, original intentions have been imperfectly followed through. Due to the rush to complete in time for the Olympics, and because the International Olympic Committee has exacting standards for athletes' accommodation, standardised plans and prefabricated construction were used.

There was also little time to reflect on and reconsider Fletcher Priest's somewhat schematic and regimented arrangement of blocks. Because the government took over the development, and was nervous about risk, it paid a very large fee to the project manager CLM, which seems to have squeezed out some of the more life-enhancing aspects of the design.

But it is there, a rare example of a planned housing development that, for all its flaws, shows more thought and quality than most things comparable built in Britain in recent decades. Importantly, the plan is to rent rather then sell the homes, which improves its prospects of success. It means that Qatari Diar has an incentive to maintain its open spaces and that the village is likely to fill up more quickly than it would if it relied on thousands of individual homeowners to stake their mortgages and deposits on what is a pioneering location.

Much of London, including Maida Vale, was built on the basis of large landowners putting up developments to rent, and it would be no bad thing if the village sets a precedent for moving away from our fixation with home ownership. It should not, however, require an Olympic Games to achieve it.

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:40 pm

London Olympic Village – in pictures

When it opens this summer a series of cuboid blocks of eight to 12 storeys, clad in prefabricated concrete panels, laid out on a rigid rectangular grid, will become home to 17,000 athletes, and after that transform into 1,400 affordable homes and another 1,400 for profit

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:42 pm


'The development seeks to emulate the much-loved planning of Maida Vale and other parts of Victorian west London,' writes Rowan Moore, 'where the interiors of blocks are given over to gardens shared by residents.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:45 pm


'Around the bottom of the blocks are bands of what are called “town houses” – three-storey units with further floors of flats stacked on top of them.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:48 pm


'There is a degree of calm to the buildings, compared to the frenzied gesticulations, the visual shouts of “buy me, buy me” that typify most works of regeneration'. Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:51 pm


'The village also features such radical ideas as balconies that are big enough for a table and chairs and it is all made of solid, enduring-looking stuff rather than the ticky-tacky cladding favoured by most urban home-builders.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:55 pm


'There are the attempts of different architects to liven up the basic formula – explorations of the expressive possibilities of rearranging windows, for instance – but they can only go so far.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 4:58 pm


'It has to be said that the look of the village is a tad forbidding, not indeed very villagey at all.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 5:02 pm


'The architects are all fine people, but they struggle to overcome the relentless order of the grid and the construction.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 5:05 pm


'Although the original masterplan had the best intentions to join up the village with nearby neighbourhoods, it has a disconnected feel. If you want to walk to the centre of Stratford, and the tube station, you must first cross the giant concrete trench of Stratford International station and then creep round the inhospitable edge of the Westfield shopping centre.' Photograph: PR

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 5:08 pm

^

Having viewed the pictures, I can quite understand Iain Sinclair's objections. I feel I'm looking at the sink estate of the future.

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Re: Iain Sinclair: London 2012 Olympics development project provokes Welsh psychogeographer's rage

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 08, 2012 5:13 pm

I wonder what the next generation of 'feral rats' will make of Anish Kapoor's Olympics sculpture, already visible on the Central Line between Mile End and Stratford?


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