"A Funny Kind Of Relationship" Alan Moore On Iain Sinclair
, June 7th, 2014 07:52
Our second Iain Sinclair feature to mark the 70x70 Finale event at Barbican this weekend sees Nick Talbot interview Alan Moore about his relationship with the writer, perspectives on psychogeography, and influence each has had on the other's work
Read yesterday's in-depth interview with Iain Sinclair here
Alan Moore is the author of numerous seminal comic books, including V For Vendetta, Watchmen and From Hell. Watchmen alone has sold over a millions copies worldwide since its publication as a trade paperback in 1987, and while it was forced to undergo the indignity of corporate re-branding as a 'Graphic Novel' in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream publishing industry, this first and last post-modern superhero epic arguably did more than any other volume to prove the heavyweight literary, artistic and intellectual integrity of the comic book.
Whilst not quite a household name, instead occupying a liminal status maintained by a principled refusal to be involved in any Hollywood adaptations of his work, Moore is widely regarded as the finest writer in the medium, and it is difficult to imagine how the comic book landscape would look without the enduring influence of his exceptional work. But it is equally difficult to imagine how From Hell (1989), his first major work beyond the costumed vigilantes and superheroes genre, and also his Magnum Opus, would have looked had he not discovered the work of Iain Sinclair. A quintessential writer's writer, Sinclair is a Hendrix-cum-Kevin Shields of the English language, mixing scholarly historical research, formal training and technical linguistic virtuosity with a wildly impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry delivery that is dazzling, dizzying, and for those with literary pretensions, frankly dispiriting in its apparently effortless genius. Sinclair's subject is predominantly London, most often East London, and the relationship between its history, its continually shifting cityscape and the psyche of those who inhabit it. Sharing similar concerns, themes and stylistic flourishes with Peter Ackroyd, both with works appearing in the eighties and nineties, this uniquely East London-focused micro-genre came to be dubbed 'psychogeography'. Soon complemented by Will Self and others, the movement could be interpreted as a response to the corporatist regeneration of London’s East End by the Thatcherite Conservative government in the 1980s. The spatial and historical density of London allows for an unusually potent and apparently limitless store of inspiration, but what marks out Sinclair in particular is his ability to see patterns, sigils and correspondences where perhaps the rest of us see dog shit, broken fencing and inane graffiti.
Various attempts have been made to define psychogeography, and the difficulty in doing so raises the question of whether the term has outgrown its usefulness. One constant theme endures however – that of the city and the subjective perceiver collapsing into one, whereby the city itself becomes a psychological entity with a character that develops over time.
Perhaps understandably, Sinclair has more recently attempted to distance himself from the term psychogeography. In the film The London Perambulator Sinclair urges that psychogeography had relevance when the Situationists used it as an aggressive way of dealing with the city, and then again when Stewart Home later resurrected it and brought comedic value to it, but eventually it became a “nasty brand name” used to describe almost anything to do with cities or walking. He has instead signed up to Nick Papadimitrious's notion of “Deep Topography” which brings the tradition back to that of the British naturalist, the wanderer of edges who is not so preoccupied with the concept of his practice. But back in the late 1980s psychogeography was still a fledgling term, and it is at this point that the works of Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore began to cross-contaminate, and this is where I begin my discussion with the Moore on the subject of Sinclair's enduring influence on his writing.
When I started planning my questions for this interview it struck me how certain key texts can come about at the right time to 'rescue' the dead ends that artistic and literary movements find themselves in. After Dada inevitably imploded under the weight of its internal contradictions, Freud's theories of subconscious forces came about at the right time and the artists had something new to use as inspiration, a possible truth about the human condition from which they could work new ideas, and from which Surrealism was born. Now whilst the roots of psychogeography (and later we can look at whether that term is problematic) go back to the Situationists, I've been wondering whether the 1980s/90s English, and particularly London-based psychogeography closely identified with Iain Sinclair's work served a similar purpose, perhaps in rescuing writers and artists from the 'anything goes' intellectual black hole of epistemic relativism spawned by post-modernism. It provided a focus, a new way of seeing. Does that make sense?
Alan Moore: I think that sounds perfectly fair. I think that perhaps yes, the term psychogeography has become problematic as probably all labels will probably do given enough time. Perhaps, for want of a better phrase, a pre-occupation with landscape had started to emerge from a number of different sources at around the same time. Just personally, when I had finished the big superhero books in the eighties, Watchmen, stuff like that, I was looking for any other vehicle than a superhero story, and the first thing that I had decided to do was a piece called Big Numbers. which was totally focused on my town of Northampton, thinly disguised as a place called Hampton, and this was going to be the story of how an American-style shopping mall would be erected in the town and completely deform the lives of all the occupants, and this was connected with the idea of fractal mathematics. Now at the time I was still perhaps a year away from commencing From Hell , and after I'd completed an episode or two [of Big Numbers] Neil Gaiman sent me a copy of Iain's extraordinary book Lud Heat which catalysed something within me. I was already becoming preoccupied with landscape, particularly the landscape I was living in, but the way that Iain had approached the concept in Lud Heat and his subsequent work was extraordinary. It brought a focus to it which I don't know, and probably never will know whether I could have achieved on my own. There was an electricity with which he was engaging with the most microscopic level of meaning inherent in any place on any street corner. When Big Numbers fell by the wayside after a couple of issues and I went into From Hell, certainly the concept of London as a web of signs and signals became a really useful tool, in order to examine this series of quasi-historical, quasi-mythical series of events around the Whitechapel killings. I was in contact with Iain from quite early on and I think we've approached the territory differently; certainly while I was doing From Hell I was starting to feel that yes, this is a type of geographical reading of London, but I tend to think of London as Iain's territory, or at least as the territory of the London writers. I've got no problems with encroaching upon that territory just as Iain came up and visited Northampton, when he was writing Edge of The Orison, but I felt that I should perhaps pay attention to my own town before exploring other places, which was what led to Voice Of The Fire.
You've effectively answered my next question which was to go on and explicitly ask you whether after V For Vendetta and Watchmen, having presumably felt you'd done all you wanted to do with the masked vigilante/superhero idea, Sinclair's Lud Heat and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings provided you with the inspiration for your next move.
AM: They really did, and it wasn't just psychogeography – it was the remarkable quality of Iain's writing that blew me away as much as the concepts that he was utilising; it was his approach to language itself; this incredible intellectual density, which I think a lot of people find off-putting at first, but the richness, which Iain can bring to a crack in the pavement.
I find it overwhelming, exhausting and I have to put it down every few pages.
AM: That's no bad way to read it, it will take you a long time, but as James Joyce remarked about Finnegans Wake: “It took me fifteen years to write, it should take you just that long to read." So Iain had a profound effect upon my writing style, it's probably more evident to me than to other people. It was more the fact that after reading Iain's work I felt that I had to man up, I had to shift things up a gear, because knowing that prose of that quality was possible, unless you tried to address that, any other response is like, cowardice, or defeat, surrender... It was like when I read Burroughs as a teenager. It made me realise that prose was capable of doing certain other things than things that I had previously attributed to it. Later on I found that Iain's kind of literary genealogy is not a million miles away from my own, its just that his has got a much finer eye attached to it and a much greater body of knowledge, but I think we were both inspired by the energy of the Beat writers and the culture that spread out from them. So there were points of contact, but the sheer level of attack that Iain puts into his writing... it raises the bar, that's the best way to describe it.
Did it also make you want to do for Northampton what he'd done for Hackney?
AM: Like I say, I'd already got that in my mind before discovering Iain's work; it was probably that I was groping towards what my readings of Iain's work would illuminate for me. He gave me a much sharper focus upon what it was that I was actually doing. And yes I certainly wanted to bring that level of attention to Northampton, that was true of Voice Of The Fire, and of Jerusalem, though Jerusalem is the first thing that I've written for a long time where I feel that I have managed to move out from under Iain's influence at least quite so evidently, in my own work. This is where I am now in my life; making a conscious effort to attempt a new voice; but yeah, again, its a work that is not just focused on Northampton but on the half a square mile of Northampton in which I grew up, and is approaching half a million words, and I can imagine that my next book will be a million words and focused entirely on one paving slab...
That's something that I explicitly wanted to ask you about, because in 'The Dance Of The Gull Catchers', in the appendix to From Hell, you invoke Koch's Snowflake, where a finite space can contain a shape of infinite length but can never exceed that space, and in the context of Ripperology those infinitely fine details will become increasingly irrelevant...
AM: Because the original area that the case covers can never be exceeded.
Right - because that's an area of time – the autumn of 1888. But in some ways what Iain does with Hackney and what you do with that 'ten-mile hot-zone' in Voice Of The Fire is you've flipped it on its head, and made that space which you never exceed a physical rather than temporal space, so that Koch's Snowflake becomes a positive rather than a negative thing.
AM: I think that there's something to be said for that, although I probably hadn't thought of it in those terms until you said the words, but yeah, that makes sense, it's kind of an inversion. What was a limitation in the case of From Hell – the autumn of 1888 – does become liberating when you make it geographical rather than temporal space. I think that Iain's ideas have certainly evolved over the years, but my ideas upon the subject have fluctuated; I don't know whether I'll come to any conclusions or whether coming to conclusions is necessarily a good thing, but I remember that when I was starting my series of irregular magickal performances with the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre Of Marvels, when me and Tim Perkins and sometimes Dave Jay [aka David J] were doing site specific performances most of which were around London, where I was kind of charged by a great enthusiasm for the subject, for psychogeography, my theory then was that there was no single street corner, no single stretch of pavement, corner of a field, anywhere, throughout the world, where if studied thoroughly enough would not yield an incredible amount of information and legend and history. When Iain came up to visit for the Edge Of The Orison project, the study into John Clare, which will be continuing in a few weeks, I raised this with him, and I said I find it fantastic that every square inch of the country has an entire mythology embedded in it just waiting to be discovered and Iain said, “No I'd have to disagree with you” and he was saying that he has just been to Kettering, Peterborough, and he felt that psychogeographically speaking these places were entirely dead to him. He found Northampton on the other hand a really vibrant and powerful place in terms of the stories embedded in it. He may have a point, he's been doing this longer than I have, I tend to trust his instincts. It may be that not every place is as charged as every other place. I would still prefer to believe that. When we were doing those early psychogeographic performances there was the one that we had agreed to do at Highbury, at the Garage, this had sprung out of when I'd had Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty use my house as one of the official venues of The KLF Burn A Million Quid. And I met a guy called Chris Brook and he was running a club night up at the Garage and I thought we'd do one of our site-specific things about Highbury, and when I did my first appraisal of the site I feared that just as Iain had said, that not everywhere had the same energy or charge. Initially I was looking for famous murders, ghosts, stuff like that, and couldn't find anything, but once I stopped looking for the things that I expected to find there and started looking at what was actually there I found all of these incredible things. Now again this isn't to say that Iain isn't absolutely right, that there are dead spots throughout the landscape that no amount of insight can bring to light. I prefer to live in hope; when I do find a place that can give up nothing then I'll concur with Iain.
One thing that strikes me when I compare your work with Iain's work is the singularity of the medium. You've gone out of your way to argue for the autonomy and singularity of comic books, and we live in an age where things are valued in terms of their potential for film and TV adaptation, and you've gone out of your way to make things that are unfilmable, and while I'm not completely sure that this is the case, I've felt that Iain's work couldn't be translated to anything outside of the English language.
AM: I think that's probably true; I know that I had some trouble with translations of my work in that I'll tend to use idioms for which there is no exact translation in other languages; I remember in the prologue toFrom Hell I'd got Inspector Abberline saying “This is the house that Jack built” and I remember the French translators saying, yeah, we've given up on that, there's no French equivalent that would make any sense, and so I can only imagine that Iain and his use of the English language... I really don't know, there may be French translations of his work, I would hope there would be...
I tried but I couldn't find any information online about translations.
AM: But on the other hand I find it difficult to imagine. It is very English-specific, it uses the full richness of the English language, and I don't want to sound Nationalistic here but it is an unusually good language, mainly because we've been invaded by so may people with interesting proper languages, and what we've got isn't a language in the normal sense, it doesn't have any of those accepted formal parts that proper languages have, its more a kind of slave patois, but Iain uses that like an orchestra. Spring-loaded sentences..
Almost dissociative, verb-less sentences, one-word sentences...
AM: A lot of that is Iain's origins as a poet before he wrote prose; looking at something like Lud Heat, it's kind of a poem that has overrun it's own structure, it's bordering on prose.
You could say conversely for Lights Out For The Territory, that it is prose bordering on poetry.
AM: Yes, that's it, that's the kind of hinterland that has emerged from his poetry; you could argue that all his books are extended poems. There is the way that he treats the sentence, the word, that is right down there in the molecules of the language in the way that a poet has to be. That's my theory anyway.
There's an interesting back and forth in the way that you've influenced each other; I wanted to ask you more about this, because I first came across Sinclair in your endnotes to From Hell where you mention Lud Heat where he first proposes the pentagrammatic link between Hawksmoor's churches and Cleopatra's Needle, and this forms the route of the coach ride that Gull and Netley take across the capital in From Hell (even taking in Sinclair's own Albion Drive address on the way). I then got hold of Lights Out For The Territory and was delighted to find that he refers to that coach ride in that book. I wondered if you then batted it back to him at some point – did I miss a beat?
AM: Well it's a funny kind of relationship, it has gone back and forth but I must say that influence has been much more on my part than on Iain's, though I have noticed that I have become one of his menagerie of unusual characters that turn up fairly frequently in his work. Iain asked me back in the late eighties if I wanted to appear in his film The Cardinal And The Corpse which was tremendous fun just from the list of people that he'd got involved, such as the notorious book finder Driffield, Brian Cowan, Tony Lambrianou – the Kray brothers's driver and the man who carried Jack the Hat McVitie under the Blackwall Tunnel, John Latham, the 1960s Spatter-physician, this incredible run of people, and I went down there and spent a few days shooting in the Brick Lane area, and at some point someone saw Chris Petit's script notes and saw that Iain's official role was down as “Freak Wrangler” which was cruel but apposite, and I remember referencing that in the first Moon and Serpent piece. There's a lot of interesting feedback, and its nice being part of Iain's Todd Browning kind of collection. You get to spend a couple of hours pedalling down a river in Tonbridge Wells in a giant plastic swan with Stewart Lee. It's not a bad way to spend your retirement.
When you were saying about how Iain found certain areas to be psychogeographically 'dead' I thought that was interesting because with London Orbital that was quite a Ballardian thing for him, exploring areas outside his normal stamping ground.
AM: Well perhaps that's him challenging his own hypothesis because the M25, a road leading nowhere was supposed to be entirely dead and he explored it by circumnavigating it and I thought that was one of his most extraordinary pieces, though he has got a fairly good track record of extraordinary pieces.
One thing I also wanted to ask you about was some of the recent things he has said about the 2012 summer Olympics, about how it has been an excuse to militarise London whilst forcing the poorest citizens out of their homes. The government manipulating the local environment for economic and political exploitation has provided fodder for his literature so there is a tension there in that a changing landscape is for better or worse sort of central to his writing.
AM:That's true; when I read Edge Of The Orison I was on a really ill-advised holiday to Yarmouth where I'd spent many engaging holidays as a kid and I wanted to see what the place was like. And it was a desolate experience, entirely my own fault. But there was this particular public house, a beautiful Art-Deco building, Bauhaus construction down on the sea-front, and it had been left to fall apart, and this was quite dispiriting, and I was reading Edge Of The Orison at the time, and I came to the passage where Iain says something I thought quite profound and cut to the chase, which is that, 'We must learn to look upon decay as heritage.' A lot of the painters of the nineteenth century were travelling and finding ruins; ruins from centuries before, and they were painting them because they had come to see a great beauty in these stones of toppled empires or whatever. But I think what Iain was saying is that we are living in a greatly accelerated world, it would do us good if we could somehow learn to see the decay around us in that light. Iain is aware of his own uneasy relationship with the stuff he is writing about. In Down River he says that the moment he is discovering some previously neglected space is the moment when its time is up. When I was researching Whitechapel for From Hell it was still Whitechapel; there was still the market café; where they would be two wonderful East End women with fags glued to their lower lips who would serve Gilbert and George who would pop in for breakfast every morning, Christchurch Spitalfields was still completely filthy, it had dog-tongues of smoke from fires decades before. These days, after Iain, Peter Ackroyd and myself have written about the place it now has a certain a terroir – it has unique selling points connected to the territory; it could be because you produce a unique wine or a unique cheese, but if you've got a certain literary set of associations that are based around the area that will do as well, and now we have a gentrified Whitechapel where I believe some of the surrounding buildings being planned will completely dwarf Hawksmoor's terrifying church. As writers yes we do play a part in the process and I think Iain has been aware of that for a long time. There have been misreadings of Iain's work where people say “Well if anything is new he doesn't like it, he wants to turn the clocks back”. No, that's not what he is saying; he's simply pointing out a process that is going on and what it means. In some ways this is the only way you can preserve places like Hackney even if they're not pulled down, because if they are not pulled down they will change, because everything changes. Those moments, those particular afternoons or years, will be lost, unless someone can encapsulate them, someone can turn them to art, because art is immortal.
The depression that he feels due to the enclosure and the disappearance of his local wilderness, is something similar happening in Northampton and do you feel similarly about it?
AM: When Iain was up visiting on the same Edge Of The Orison occasion, when we went for a nice walk around St. Andrews's mental hospital, where John Clare was confined for the last years of his life, and I was bitching and whining about everything great about Northampton had been pulled down, he said “But you've still got quite a bit left”. And I imagine that from his perspective that's probably true, that there has probably been a far greater despoliation down where he was. However, in my case, the Boroughs which is where I grew up, back in Saxon times was the whole area of the town; there was no more to Northampton than the area now called the Boroughs. Now they started dismantling that at the end of the First World War. I've since come to the probably mad conclusion that this might not be unconnected with the Russian Revolution; that people were terrified, around about 1919, once the war was over and they had had a chance to take stock of what had actually happened, over there in Russia, in America that was the period when the term 'Red Scare' started. Everybody tends to think of it as Mccarthy in the 1950s but no, 1919, that was the Red Scare, and governments all over the world almost expected it to happen, a sort of domino theory, and I can't help wondering if they looked at the concentration of working class people in one tiny area and thought it would be better to break that area up. That is perhaps a paranoid conclusion, I don't know, it might have been what it was about. But I've watched it turned into a clearance area. And that is a condition, and as I've been writing about in Jerusalem, as we continue with the years of austerity, with the constantly revised dates for when we might be expected to emerge from it, I think that the concept of the clearance area... Essentially it's like, there are lots of reasons why no-one would have wanted to go to the Boroughs or to Hackney, and I think that give it enough time and the Boroughs and Hackney will come to them. Both me and Iain, though we are very different people, have emerged from similar backgrounds; we were both, and probably still are, woolly anarchists, who emerged from the 1960s with a similar tastes for Captain Beefheart and Allen Ginsberg, but like I say, Iain's depth of knowledge is greater than mine.
One thing I want to ask you about before we run out of time is Nick Papadimitrious's idea of 'Deep Topography'. I was watching the film The London Perambulator and at least at the point when that film was made Iain had allied himself with Nick's notion of Deep Topography because psychogeography has just become a term used for anything at all to do with walking and the city. Are you sympathetic with that?
AM: Yeah, I can see why Iain would want to do that it does become a problematic term. I don't know whether we need other terms for it, I think that probably all of them are equally applicable. I discovered some of the problems and limitations of the term when I was doing the piece Unearthing about my very recently deceased friend Steve Moore. That was an odd thing because it grew out of a suggestion from Iain; I was just about to launch into Jerusalem and he said have you got time for another digression, I'm doing this anthology City Of Disappearances about things that have disappeared, are disappearing or will disappear, all within the confines of London, and the thing that I wanted to write about was Steve Moore, because I was thinking “He's in no more danger of disappearing than anybody, but when he does something quite unique will have gone." And so I started to compose this quite lengthy piece about Steve, and because one of the most striking facts about Steve is that when the police went in and found him dead he was lying probably less than seven paces from the spot where he was born. He'd lived in that house all of his life. And when someone is as firmly connected to the landscape as that, you obviously cannot ignore the place in which they are living. So what started out as a story about Steve also became a very thorough history of Shooter's Hill, which turns out to be quite a psychogeographic hotspot. Without that hill, London wouldn't exist. There was chalk fault upon the hill's North side, which collapsed a few million years ago and gouged out the Thames Valley, without which no River Thames, no London. It was the site at which Julius Ceasar came over and got first sight of the new territory of London; it was a haunt of highwaymen, all of this fantastic history. So the story ended up as psychobiography, as well as psychogeography, and I started to think, really are these terms of any use because surely one must contain the other; that you can't consider anywhere without considering the people that live there and their lives, and you can't consider any life without considering where it is lived.
And it's quite rare now for someone to be born and die within the same home.
AM: It certainly is. Even in my grandmother's day, she lived in at least four houses during her life, my mother lived in at least two, I've lived in several. But Steve lived in the same house all his life which illustrates the indivisibility of the landscape and the people that are connected with it, at least in a literary sense. Psychogeography wouldn't have been a sufficient term for what I was doing with Unearthing because it was very much centred on one individual. Perhaps, and I'm talking off the top of my head here because I am starting to get faint from hunger, at the end of the day, maybe it's psych-everything? Maybe its just a different way of looking at the world. A different level of focus on the world, and it doesn't really matter what facet of the world you are bringing that attention to; history, geography, biography; maybe that is what is in Iain's writing and what is so important about it. It's a different way of seeing; a different way of seeing language, a different way of seeing the possibilities of literature, a different way of seeing the world around us and our relationship with that world. But yes – psychogeography – it is far too limiting, and there are plenty of other words.
Iain Sinclair's 70x70 Finale event, featuring film screenings and a live discussion between Sinclair, Susan Stenger and Brian Catling, takes place at the Barbican, London, TONIGHT - Saturday 7th June. For information and tickets, click here to visit the Barbican website and here to visit the King Mob site.