Capital Realism: John Foxx And Iain Sinclair Hold Court
, September 23rd, 2015 08:46
Overgrown, overground, rambling free, John Foxx and Iain Sinclair meet up for food to discuss their mutual obsession with London. Words by Emily Bick. Photographs by Al Overdrive
John Foxx and Iain Sinclair are two of the most thoughtful chroniclers of London and its changes: from ruins to gentrification and back again, all explored by personally walking through the abandoned, awkward and interstitial spaces. Between them, they’ve explored the city and produced lyrical and engrossing albums (Foxx), books (Sinclair) and films (both) that track their wanderings, and create maps of their own interior geographies.
This year, both of them have produced works that could be interpreted as snapshots of London right now, though as always, steeped in the past and with an eye on the future. Sinclair’s London Overground chronicles his travels, with filmmaker Andrew Kötting, around the new spaces that the Overground has linked up, and he riffs on the party networks and connected histories that have emerged, including visits to the overlooked stomping grounds of Angela Carter and Princess Diana. Foxx’s London Overgrown, on the other hand, is a contemplative, beautifully orchestrated album — as lush and heartbreaking as his 2009 album with Robin Guthrie, Mirrorball, but evoking the quiet return of wildness found in Patrick Keiler’s film, Robinson In Ruins. It would make the perfect soundtrack for a wander along the tracks, or watching the still-unfinished landscapes speed past the window of an Overground train.
They met us for lunch at Beagle, built under the arches behind the Hoxton stop of the ginger line, to discuss walking through London’s many transformations and ghosts, especially the spectre of the ever-present and prescient JG Ballard.
What were your first experiences of coming to London?
John Foxx: I went to the 14-hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace. People like Lennon suddenly appeared, and Brian Jones. We were picking up on all that scene that was coming out of International Times at that point. And then we just felt that things had changed, that a whole generation had come into play. I was a bit young for this, but it was great, it was so exciting to be part of London.
Iain Sinclair: And you’re talking about Alexandra Palace, that elevation and special viewpoint in London — when did John Lennon ever go to Alexandra Palace before that? In the same time, 1967, I was very young, but I knocked on Allen Ginsberg’s door and persuaded him to do this film for German TV. He was living up on top of Primrose Hill, and he was recalling William Blake being up there, and he was recalling the spiritual signs of the druids and all that, and at the same time, here’s just a kid who’s not in school that day, who’s bunked off, and he gets into this conversation. London was really potent in that way, just humming, throbbing with possibilities.
JF: It felt optimistic and sunny as well.
IS: It did! It was sunnier!
JF: It felt sunnier, and I thought the whole place was wonderful. But that’s totally different to the seventies, because the seventies, when I arrived here, it was very grey. it was the winter of discontent and all the rubbish was piled up in Leicester Square, that was the central London rubbish heap. and I don’t know if you ever saw it...
JF: There were rats jumping about...
IS: There is Ridley Road Market rubbish up here [in Hackney], but market rubbish is nothing.
JF: And the three-day week, with no electricity.
IS: I was working in Stratford then, in the site where the Olympic stadium is now, in the container loading yard. We used to nick blocks of wax and take them home to make candles. There was no light!
Where did the wax come from?
IS: Oh, they were from Australians, they were shipping in blocks of wax, all kinds of weird stuff, canisters of wine, and you’d have the job of offloading them onto little lorries. There were all of these broken bits, and the pay was so terrible that you’d be living off the stuff that fell off the back...
Like chasing down trains for the coal that would fall off them.
IS: It was a kind of criminous environment, but it was also from the top down, because the people who ran it were trying to defeat the dockers. The unions were strong, so they thought that they could run it all with non-union labour. When the dockers found out, there were huge strikes, really dramatic things. But it was exactly that 70s atmosphere you [John] describe. All of this heading into something dark...
JF: The concrete came down.
IS: The overground city, that landscape.
JF: Exactly. that’s where I first encountered that image, during those times. There were a lot of films - it was something that was in the air. You would see episodes of science fiction, with scenes of the overgrown city, with overgrown London. One day I happened to be in the house of a guy called David Litchfield, who ran a magazine called The Image. On his wall, he had a photorealistic painting that looked like an aerial view of the jungle, and if you looked at it carefully, it was a view from Centrepoint, there on Oxford Street. and it was a really seminal moment when i saw that photograph, and connected it with London. I’d just come from the north, which was overgrown, because of the dissolution of the factories, the factories had all disappeared.
JF: Yeah, and I grew up there — and to come to London and see the same things start to happen here, it happened a bit later.
IS: Well, I think you mentioned watching Quatermass, and getting that sense of a blitz landscape, exploiting the ruins — that’s what London was like. When I moved to Hackney in 1968, my garden was full of bits of shrapnel, and the buildings were cracked, and things were growing out of the cracks from the war damage. Nobody wanted to move into these big Georgian and Victorian era properties—nobody would take them, they all wanted the new flats in a tower block. So these buildings just decayed, exactly as you are describing. Haggerston Baths on Whiston Road is this building from 1904, with this beautiful curved roof, that was closed in 2000 for health and safety, a temporary closure, and it never reopened. I went into it last week, and it was just dysfunction, squatters had been in so the walls were covered with cave art, acid slogans, and the swimming pool itself is covered in mould. The old public baths are filled with dust, there’s coal coming out of the taps… it’s an overgrown city, it’s sort of in limbo, waiting for a new city to grow out of it. So much of London is like that.
JF: There are a lot of old NHS buildings that are empty and full of squatters, aren't there. Right across the way is one of them.
IS: The most notable ones are the mental asylums, which we discovered all around the M25. they just closed them all off when their funding was gone. People like R D Laing, who was involved in all that 60s stuff, had been running the anti-university in Shoreditch, where he had his own little groups making their voyage through madness, and meanwhile these places were abandoned. And the builders were instructed to burn the records of the lives that had been there, because they were going to convert them into gated communities, they didn’t want any stigma of madness. So you have these haunted buildings, and it was just a sort of instinct to sneak through the fence and explore them, to stroll through those endless corridors and look out through that shattered glass.
JF: There’s a lovely book, an American book, called The Things They Left, which is about an asylum that’s closed down in the 50s. the author went in there and found the boxes that held the possessions of the people that went in there. Many people were in there most of their lives, so you have these boxes of their belongings, and it’s tremendously moving to have this described, their letters and so on. And there were some children who were gradually abandoned by their parents who were left there as well, so this whole section of the building was full of these ghost objects, these ghost lives.
IS: You can resurrect these lives from these objects. The artist Rachel Lichtenstein basically did this with Rodinsky’s Room, this room above a synagogue that’s been locked up for fifteen years, and again, you open it up and there’s a pan on the stove with porridge in it, and there’s a calendar set, and all of these books and diaries - and yet the man is gone. So everybody then uses these objects as a detective story to assemble a life and discover that he’s been put inside one of these asylums in the 60s simply because he had lived beyond his time, and he died in obscurity and poverty, and is buried out in Waltham Abbey. Thankfully he was never alone in that room, there was always his sister and his old mother, the three of them lived in this Dostoyevsky novel in Whitechapel, where everything was going on around them.
JF: You also have stories about women, who would just be incarcerated [in Victorian asylums]. And I didn’t know about this until recently, but it’s absolutely terrifying, that kind of power.
IS: Like that Wilkie Collins novel, The Woman In White. Women were just given that fear, just put in their place with that.
JF: There were no property rights for women — no rights at all.
IS: While we’re talking about women, should we mention J G Ballard?
JF: Well, you met him…
IS: I knew him quite well, in the latter stages. He was a really strange and interesting guy.
JF: I liked his domesticity.
IS. His domesticity in Shepperton was to let the house rot. His daughter, Fay, saw this dusty thing fall from his mantelpiece, and it was this lemon that he’d put there in 1965! He used his typewriter, and he’d used to start work at the same time every day, at one o’ clock, and he would only meet in a very limited number of places, around Shepherd’s Bush, because he came in to meet his girlfriend, as he called her, though she was well into her sixties, and stayed on Wednesday nights and Saturday nights and then went back to Shepperton. While he was there, he would meet people at one or two places, and talk away. But you could’t ask him about his work, he would never, never discuss his writing.
JF: Did you ever go to his house?
IS: No, journalists would occasionally go to his house, but they only ever got the same picture, of the deck chair and the palm tree, and the facsimile of the painting of Delvaux.
JF: He liked the surrealists, didn’t he?
IS: The most interesting thing is that I interviewed the woman who did the painting, Brigid Marlin. She painted an overgrown landscape for a science fiction book, and he liked it so much that he asked her to do this Delvaux painting. She hated Delvaux. She said, ‘Oh, do you don’t want me to do that. Let me paint your portrait.’ So there was this complete standoff, and then he agreed, so he came to her house and he was the worst sitter she had ever had in her life, he just told her what to do and never stopped talking. She hated Delvaux, but she said, ‘I’m not going to do this until you finish the portrait.’ It’s hanging in the national portrait gallery now, and the Delvaux, it stayed with him through his working life.
JF: It’s an interesting theme with that generation, isn’t it, because I remember Desmond Morris being a closet surrealist, and that was a real surprise, to see that someone who would regularly appear on the BBC had this sort of dream life.
IS: Like with Ballard, who presented himself as this proper colonial gentleman, but he was really perverse, his take on the world, his magic. Ballard associated surrealism with coming back from Japan and finding that all those images of his childhood, of drained swimming pools and crashed planes and all that stuff are sense in an art world way. I think the books are very like that, very image-led.
JF: Yes, they are.
IS: There’s a central image, one of them is a city that’s overgrown, or suffered a catastrophe, he’s very prescient about this.
JF: There is - and one of the other images is Gormier, there’s a Gormier drawing of a tourist in London sitting on the banks of the Thames, and it’s all a ruin, it’s this kind of Ozymandias moment.
The group orders lunch; Iain Sinclair is bemused by the ‘heritage beetroot’ on offer while John Foxx goes for the Ryeland Leg, after the waitress describes it as coming from ‘a very cute lamb that looks just like a teddy bear, but it’s delicious’. They start talking about video and filmic representations of London, and a music and film project Foxx has been working on with the filmmaker Karborn and electronic artist Steve D'Agostino.
JF: It’s called Evidence Of Time Travel, which uses repurposed film to make scenarios where people appear or disappear or go into these imagined landscapes.
IS: Sounds a lot like somebody like Chris Marker.
JF: La Jetée, yeah.
John, you have a Ballardian-themed film too — B-Movie Ballardian Neuronica — full of 20th century icons. it’s really interesting what you do in with time in it, because you have these still life scenes and texts that move like gifs, and then these close-up images of stars that are held for really intense bursts, like Warholian screen tests.
JF: One of the things about film that is magical is that you can play with time, you can reverse it. It operates very much like dreaming, like a technological analogue.
IS: The cinema is like the experience of people in the trains above us [looking out the window], and there’s always been a historical cinema and trains connection - but the people in the trains are now looking at this thing in their hand, and they’re completely wedded to those conversations. They’re in a film but they’re refusing to be actors in that sensibility. Whereas driving, you’re looking through that windscreen, and what you see is a film, whether you like it or not. You surrender.
JF: What about with automatic cars? You’ll be able to divorce yourself from that.
IS: It’s where people are now — even if they are supposedly driving, they will be doing this [screens] as well. You’re going to get this third picture.
JF: There’s a lovely Banksy image, called Modern Love, with two lovers on a park bench looking at their phones, which is modern intimacy. I’m post-digital — I’ve decided to be post-digital...
IS: I’m pre-digital, I never even got there!
JF: It’s interesting to try and give it up, because I’m definitely chemically influenced, I can see that I’ve been changed by the technology.
There seems to be a split between the need to document everything with phones and social media— to say I was here, without putting much more into it, and a need to bear witness.
IS: There are different types of documentation, and I think that impulse is always there. Thinking back to people like Stan Brakhage, who wanted to record and deal with everyday life, and it was immediately poeticised by the form of their attention. They were really thinking about scratching film and double exposing things — manipulating physical objects. There was always a physical delay to process the film, this kind of alchemy, so it was never instant. And there was no high and low - these incredible banalities had to be put up beside — everything was equally significant to make images. It was very very Ballard.
JF: He’s still writing the scripts, isn’t he? Each time I pick up a newspaper, I just think, Ballard, Ballard.
IS. And he did it without any technological involvement whatsoever. He didn’t even read emails. He used a fax machine to fax his articles in to the Guardian — but it doesn’t matter, because he kept up with the zeitgeist by just absorbing it from watching bits of TV, and random political books, and newspapers.
JF: I had a moment recently when I went to a quarry, and I was cutting stone with a chisel, and I suddenly realised that for the first time in years, I was making something real. It was a real, present moment that changed my life. And I thought, I hated computers after that. Because I came back after that and I tried to work on the computer — and I stopped, because I felt like there was a piece of glass between me and the thing, I couldn’t get hold of the thing I was working on, and I just got this real joy from working with my hands, and hitting things. Similarly, I could’t reach what I was trying to manipulate. And it felt - if I was a Catholic, it would have felt like a sin, somehow, it would have felt morally wrong.
It was a turning point for me, and I don’t have the same view of digital stuff anymore. That’s why I mentioned that post-digital thing — I do feel I want to be post-digital, I want to do things with my hands, with physical objects. Not digits, because it’s not real. There’s nothing there. You’re dealing with digits behind a glass screen, and it’s no more real than a ten pound note is, it’s a token of something else.
IS: The Basil Bunting poem Briggflatts settles what you’ve just described. There’s a mason, and the whole physical structure of the poem is the tapping of your name on a grave. The craftsmanship involved, and the unity of the physical means with the object he is working with shows a connection to the world.
JF: Where media does connect, before social media, I always used to think that media connects you to somewhere else, where you didn’t have access and you couldn’t get to. The whole pop world was built on that, and that’s one of the reasons that you got so much of the universe through records, or videos, they were connections to something that was so far away. The thing was then an event. It was even an event to go see a film — you’d want to see some strange science fiction film because you’d read about it, and you’d physically have to make the journey to see it when it was only on for one night.
IS: It was more like theatre because you couldn’t get to it, and now you just google for ten seconds. Now it’s more participatory — there’s an attempt to go back to that, by making a grand production out of some old movies. It’s like time travelling back to Victorian times, where you have theatre, performance, and cinema all in one, you have the theme park built into the film.
I was asked to pick 70 films for my 70th birthday, and curate screenings of them over a year, in environments that were generally related to the film. What I showed in the Lea Valley, in a state-of-the-art, trendy burger bar place, quite like this, was Antonioni’s Il Grido, and not a single person showed up. No one, and I thought, show it anyway, if no audience comes, then that’s what it is. Other ones, you’d have a massive crowd show up for no reason you could think of, things that were reasonably obscure, some that were shown in a church in the back end of Clapton. The whole year was a mysterious investigation of what it means to go and see films, and to discover they are events. It’s not so much to do with what the film is, but some things catch the imagination as an event, to go to this place, to see such and such a person.
JF: Do you remember the cinema at Kings’ Cross?
IS: The Scala.
JF: Yes. It gradually became more and more decadent, people would take acid in the audience, but it was interesting because it was a world within London. To visit that particular universe you’d go there on a Friday or a Saturday night, not so much to watch the film, as to participate in the audience goings on.
IS: Do you see London Overgrown as an ongoing project to do with memory, and cinema, and the anecdotes that you’re telling us as part of a structure for your work?
JF: I think so — I’m not a writer, and I’m terrified of my writing being shown, but it was just a way to make material to use for music, for ideas for films.
IS: You were just down the road, in Shoreditch.
JF: Holywell Lane.
IS: That’s a very resonant name, because there was a holy well. You’d tap the ley lanes.
JF: I had no idea what I was getting into! There were streets that were overgrown, literally, there were trees and plants growing out of buildings where there was bomb damage. It’s hard to believe now.
IS: It was a battleground, around Brick Lane every Sunday morning was a battle, with fascists, antifascists, and the BNP and all those meeting head on; there were petrol bombs being thrown into Asian shops - it was really quite an aggressive place in which the memories of the Kray era, and gangland stuff, and even memories of Jack The Ripper were present.
JF: It was a real presence, a dark presence.
IS: When I worked in the brewery in Brick Lane, there was a guy who went around with a big fake hammer and he’d be photographed at all those sites. This wasn’t an art project, this was a private obsession. He’d find all these things that looked like they’d been taken in the 1880s, but they were photographed in 1975. The resolve of time was slow, until suddenly, the Margaret Thatcher period, you realised you could rewrite it all.
JF: And it was right next to the City.
IS: Right next to the City. And there was that guy who did ghost tours, who died, he was American, he curated a fake, Georgian environment in one of these houses. It took an American to see the possibilities.
JF: Did you ever know him?
IS: I met him a few times, yes.
IS: Yes. That goes back to the idea of ghosts, too because you would go in and see the traces of the family that had been there. The whole area lends itself to that, and these items had been assembled to tell a story. There was another house with a peeling pink door in Princelet Street, which was in every heritage film, because they chose not to paint the door. It was in Oliver Twist.
I went to buy a house on Columbia Road at one point, a really broken down place, and when I went into it, with the estate agent, there were chicken feathers all over the place and blood on the walls, so obviously something fascinating was going on there. Again, there’s that connection with magic and rituals, and that sort of feeling of witchery going on. Also, that’s the site of Sarah Wise’s The Italian Boy, this family that lived just up Columbia Road, and they were murdering runaway boys, they would get them drunk in the garden on laudanum and suspend them in the well, and the women would then sell all their clothes, and the man would take the bodies on his cart to sell as specimens to hospitals. But the vision of London was that everybody was drunk, so when they walked through these streets with the cart, they’d go to all the pubs, then they’d go to Smithfield, they’d go to Guy’s. Anything could happen, because there were always enough people who could disappear without being seen again.
There’s a war memorial, around here, to the dead from the First World War - and they put the dates from 1914 to 1919, so the First World War went on for quite a while longer. So there was a mysterious year, something odd happened here, and the war went on for a an extra year.
Do either of you think the city has changed, with all of the cctv and surveillance, to be a place where it’s not as easy to disappear?
IS: I think in the same period, I was talking about the 1980s, the Thatcher period, some of the bricks and mortar were interrogated, the city had to defend itself. If you didn’t have a definite narrative, it was swept away. At the same moment, you become this virtual city, where with CCTV, everyone is watching, but no one knows what to do with it. In Stoke Newington, you had the council offices up there, there was this basement with sixteen huge monitors where you have all the streets of Hackney on tape, with people watching, but they’re not allowed to interact. If they saw a crime going in, all they’re told to do is to get the shot — get as good of a head shot as you can; make the best film record, and then pass the information on to the police, and they will decide whether they will or will not intervene. Sometimes they’re allowing drug episodes to build up for years, so you’ve got this really strange idea of a virtual sort of borough, where everybody knows everything, but nobody interacts.
But not everybody knows everything, it’s only the people who are in charge, who have been chosen.
IS: They’ve been chosen because they have a very low boredom threshold, because ordinary people would just fall asleep. You can’t just watch a screen for hours and hours. But then things happen, like there us a square that had very obvious cameras, so all the kids that used to do their drug dealing there, just went indoors instead, to get away from the cameras. Of course, some guy complained about them doing this in the stairwell, and they killed him. So the idea of preventing crime created crime, because it moves to the areas where the cameras aren’t watching. I think we’ve gone beyond that, from really obvious surveillance, that only comes into play after the fact to show us that surveillance was in action. For the first time now you have footage from little phone cams being shown on the national news, and then you use station surveillance footage to piece together the narrative of a journey. it’s posthumous. so where are we now? We’re in a different kind of city.
JF: It’s gone into a hole now, too, because you can now make surveillance records of what people are doing on computers, so you know what their tastes, habits, leaving profiles, constantly. You keep leaving a trail; and then there’s drone technology, I’ve been watching that one, I think everybody has. I think it is the most terrifying technological development I’ve ever heard of, to Amazon’s system of being able to deliver by drone to your car boot, and being able to open it and to drop the package inside your car while you’re at work is possible. It’s not one technology that is the problem, it’s the interconnection of technologies that will make this matrix that we will have to negotiate, and there will be all kinds of interesting unforeseen consequences. As we know from the motorcar, we thought it would mean freedom and driving through the sunshine, we didn’t anticipate there would be millions of other people making the same decisions at the same moment. All technologies have that built in problem, and it’s philosophically really interesting. Our aspirations lead to more complexity. There’s an etiquette that goes along with new technologies, too; mobile phone etiquette is interesting, umbrella etiquette in pavements in cities is interesting, and all of these etiquettes change and evolve with changes in technology and conditions. The umbrella thing wasn’t necessary until the streets became so crowded that we’re now going to have to have pavements with lines down the middle, like roads, and they’ll have to have arrows for directions. It’s happening in railway stations, and it will have to happen in the streets as the population grows, so we’ll be faced with new traffic lights, and so on for new traffic flows, we might have to move this traffic underground, because there will be so many people that we won’t be able to move. I think that all these things are linked.
IS: And also, thanks to this technology, you can see any building in London that you wanted, inside and out. And yet if you went into the street, you could be arrested for taking a picture of the Houses of Parliament. It’s completely old fashioned. All this is public paranoia, you have these gestures to say you can’t do this. It’s meaningless, but they challenge you as if there’s a war on, as if there’s a terrorist situation, if you’re taking a photo in an Ikea car park or a container depot, as if this can’t be allowed, but if I wanted to get that information, I could just look on google and so could anybody else. This dialogue just doesn’t make any sense. I was outside city hall last week, being interviewed on the pavement, and a security guard said, ‘You can’t talk.' There’s a sort of irony there, it being city hall—because it belongs to More London, that’s a kind of development consortium or something - More London!
What about the way that, for both of you, transport networks have changed the shape of the city?
IS: Like the way the railway line became a party device, like the same way that the M25 and mobile phones all turned up the same time as rave culture, there’s a sort of microclimate on the ginger line because of the railway, there are massive parts of London that have opened up because you can now get there on the train. These non-places that were further off the train were put on the map.
JF: Going to Willesden when it was full of industrial collapse, and everything was running wild, I knew that it would be the next development area, and it is, by the canal and the railway. You could see this would happen, because it was the only place in this whole circle that had this wild quality. I think that there are zones, though, that should be kept to be overgrown - I used to value them, places that you could go that were unexpectedly empty and free of the static of London. It was like stepping out of static and into this other way of thinking.
IS: I’m interested in these stealth dwellings that pop in these parts of the city — people will just put up what looks like a builders’ hut in the middle of something, I’ve seen about four or five of these, one is right next to a big secret state building that has this cellar bit, with these black steps — they just put this hut in there, and people come in and out of it wearing orange overalls, but they are living in it for free, like urban foxes. I think it’s a lovely idea.
JF: It is, isn’t it? There’s a Kathy Acker book in the 80s, where she used to look under bridges - she used to wonder if she could suspend something underneath there to live, because it was so expensive to live in New York. I thought, yeah, everybody does that. When you look at those taxi cafes, that are those little huts — those places that you never notice that are almost everywhere, could I live there, could I build a home in there, could I do it so anonymously that it would be just hiding in plain sight.
IS: Its a secret world! Squatting is confrontational, they know you’re in the building, they see you’re physically there, they know what’s going on and want you out. If you find something here, nobody will touch it. Just - somewhere to stay!
JF: It’s the New York effect where you have all these postindustrial spaces where artists went, because it’s cheap and you can experiment with living.
IS: It’s important.
JF: It’s important for cultural life anyway, because without that, you don’t have a cultural life. New York is a very pleasant, safe place to live but is also incredibly expensive, and there doesn’t seem to be any artistic activity whatsoever there anymore.
IS: The speed of the technology also wipes out the artist, or the way people read books. A lot of students come to discuss things, and I ask which of my books they’ve read, and they say, ‘I haven’t read any of them, I’ve just got it all off the internet from wikipedia and interviews, blogs and bits and pieces’. Now the book, it’s there to establish a brand, so that starts all this other activity like you’re doing now [with this interview]- all that stuff is where you establish a potential audience. And the physical act of working on this book and holding on to all the ideas and narratives, it’s quite an art, and it’s very difficult to do,and I think this kind of activity is going to become more specialist, and high-skilled, and almost redundant in the world at large.
JF: Well, you can’t make music, because the mp3 was the thing that changed all the formats that had been established before. You weren’t allowed to put an album out and listen to the whole thing anymore; it became much more fragmented. London Overgrown is coming out as a CD, but now you put mp3s out and let people make their own various decisions about how to use it in different ways. And you can make films around some of the pieces of music and put that on websites. So it’s like you have this object that can be a bit viral.
JF: It is a bit organic,
IS: Like these tendrils growing out of fixed buildings, you don’t know what it is.
JF: And the same thing happens if you’re a writer.
IS: Oh, absolutely! Really now, more and more, the book comes along as only an excuse to launch a whole series of people wanting to talk about performances or readings or films you’ve made, and I’ve probably interacted with more people that way than ones who have picked up the book to read it. Books are not just the ideas — people can extract these, but there’s a kind of pattern that you read into it, a kind of structure to the sentences. So if I say, ‘It’s a book about walking round the M25’, that’s easy, you can do what you like describing it, whereas a contemplation of this or that blah blah blah, forget it, too difficult.
But in an early chapter of London Overground you write about your friend Andrew Kötting, and he’s your companion and witness who goes with you on all your travels, and say that he’ll never read your book —and if he’ll never read it…
IS: He’ll read it to see what I write about him! No, this is the thing, he’s my companion, walking this book. What I’ve created of him is a fictional entity, it’s not really how he is, you exaggerate to make this fictional character work in terms of the book. But the crux of the book depended on the terrible accident he had at the end, and that’s haunted the whole thing. Obviously, I didn’t know that was going to happen before the start. He leaves London at the end, and had a terrible motorbike accident, actually at the same spot where were walking around. A car hit him and the mirror of his bike went into his leg. They took him to the hospital, and three days of his mind were lost, he couldn’t remember where he’d been or what he’d done when he woke up three days later. in a sense, the book is a posthumous dream of what happened in these three days of all he’d lost, and the experience of walking.
JF: There is, though, an effect I remember from when I was a young savage myself, before I got civilised, which is picking up bits of media from things I’d passed. I always used to visualise it as a canal full of stuff, and I was on the bridge, and I’d think, ‘Oh, that looks interesting’. You just glean bits, and then over the years you connect other bits together, until you have your own sort of culture of stuff.
IS: That’s how you make a map of the city as well, that’s what I did — I didn’t know London, so I had to find this Hampstead Cinema, or whatever. Gradually, bit by bit, they joined up.
JF: Yes, you build your own map, don’t you.
IS: Episodes happen.
JF: There’s a delightful thing when you find that somewhere you thought was a long way away from somewhere else is actually next door, and it gives you a real buzz. It’s worth all the hard walking you did before, when you were mistaken, or didn’t actually understand - it’s one of the best things in the world, once you’ve actually done that. And to un-map, you have to keep going further out.
IS: After so many times, the neural grooves in your head are fixed. To keep your mind alive, you need to explore, re-groove a bit.
JF: Then there’s the way places change over time, even with the seasons. You walk somewhere in winter, and it feels very different than in summertime. Do you keep a diary, Iain?
IS: Yes, but only in a totally sketchy way, just the hard facts of where I was, no comment at all if I was here, I would just say lunch or whatever, just so I’d got the right date. With the Haggerston Baths I was talking about, when I went back to see this place that had been lost for so long, I had a vivid memory of using these baths when we first came to London, because our house had a tin bath and an outside lavatory, and we used to go outside to public baths to bathe. I remembered it absolutely, in physical detail. When I was researching, I found that the male baths had been taken out in 1964, and we had been there in 1968, so we couldn’t have been there, I was thinking about another building, somewhere else. Yet that was so deeply ingrained, and combined with my memories of swimming, and teaching kids to swim — and this other one — I think your construction of these interior parallel universes, are not necessarily of the right things.
JF: You can tell stories about yourself that are fictional...
IS: They start fictional and then they come true!