I’m incredibly pleased to have had a story published in the new issue of Interzone (#259). It’s a superb magazine that’s been going for over 30 years and has published some of the best science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction (for want of a better phrase) writers in that period, including JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Jeff Noon and many, many others. There’s a small part of me that feels vaguely like an interloper, an intruder moving across territory I wouldn’t normally cover, but if I say that my story is only nominally science fictional that isn’t in the least meant to be a slight on the genre. Ballard after all is one of the touchstone writers in my reading life, and there are many more purveyors of sci-fi and fantasy who have meant as much to me as a reader as more prominent or ‘respectable’ literary figures like VS Naipaul or William Golding (and dealing as he does with an anti-humanistic, quasi-theological worldview with an incredibly long perspective, what is Golding at heart but a fantasy writer of a kind?) The kind of fiction I’m interested in writing – non-realist, uninterested in contemporary society, yoked together more by image than narrative, set in unspecified locales with characters designed to illustrate tropes as much as personalities – could be seen as another kind of fantasy in itself. In which case, with this particular magazine, perhaps I should feel perfectly at home?
Apart from “Radio On” and “London Orbital”, Chris Petit’s films are not available on DVD. Although Channel 4 have commissioned him for projects (several made in collaboration with Iain Sinclair, which perhaps shows you where I’m going here), they are rarely broadcast. As a filmmaker, Petit exists on the fringe of the fringe. He maintains a high profile through his work as a lecturer, as a journalist and book reviewer for the Guardian, and, more unusually, as a writer of high-brow thrillers, but his films, the very source of his reputation, remain resolutely underground.
This is as it should be, I think, and underground is where the best work is most often done. Sinclair referred to Petit’s films as “unseen (and unchallenged)”, “weirdly posthumous”, guaranteeing them a mythic quality. It makes them “interesting enough to be saved from the oblivion of an afterlife on DVD.” [Ghost Milk, p.205]. In other words, if you want to watch any of Petit’s films, you have to be prepared to put some effort in. It’s more than their cryptic, conspiratorial style that makes them feel like samizdat; to get hold of them, you need to know the right people, make the right contacts, open yourself up to serendipity and coincidence. (Or simply trawl through the lower reaches of the internet, where everything, in time, can be found.)
“The Falconer” and “Asylum”, the two films I watched recently, were co-written and co-filmed with Iain Sinclair. They feel like bootleg surveillance footage, smuggled in from the edge of the culture. They are what Sinclair calls, elsewhere, a “cinema of vagrancy”. Raw, the images cleverly manipulated and edited, but not smoothed out and polished in any way, have all the disturbing quality of a found tape in a Japanese horror film. I’d got hold of these films last year (I won’t go into the details). Understanding perhaps that I wasn’t yet ready to watch them, I put them away and forgot about them. I found the discs recently; appropriately enough they were tucked into the slipcase of my Patrick Keiller double-bill of “London” and “Robinson in Space”. (One of Petit’s novels is called “Robinson”, part-based on the eponymous character from Keillor’s films.) Each film is essentially a fictional documentary, an hour each. Images are blurred, they break down and disintegrate in the middle of a sequence, or turn into a swirling mass of fractals. Figures haunt motorway sidings, multi-storey carparks. Archive footage blends with unmediated CCTV; fractured voiceover with didactic interviews. Familiar theorists, writers, and avant garde artists pop up to recount hair-raising conspiracies – Stewart Home, Kathy Acker, Michael Moorcock, Sinclair himself. “The Falconer” is an “investigation” into the life and career of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, the louche filmmaker, 1960s survivor, and occult magician. “Asylum” is set in an unspecified future following a viral outbreak, and purports to be an assemblage of footage connected to an unspecified project known as the “Perimeter Fence”. (It’s also about Michael Moorcock, in an equally unspecified way.) They both look like they’ve been shot on a budget of £7.50, and that was just for the taxi fare to get to the location.
Watching both of these films feels vaguely like being initiated into a cult. You’re in the edgelands now, you’re picking through the cultural detritus of the century; you’re under surveillance, or you’ve got someone under surveillance yourself. You’ll start carrying a camera everywhere and take pictures of the graffiti in rusting industrial estates. You’ll record the sound of disused motorways, and build up dossiers on non-existent people. And one day, all of this will appear in one of Petit’s films. If you every manage to get hold of it, you’ll recognise yourself in the hazy, unfocused footage of a sinister figure staring out to sea, on the estuarial wastelands by an abandoned power station.
I first read Iain Sinclair when I lived in London, about nine years ago. I quickly understood that the great sprawling city, the black hole of the island from which no money can escape, had generated its own very specific mode of literature; part fiction, part archaeological exploration, part mythographic occult ritual. Of the writers associated with this genre (if that doesn’t seem too limited a term), such as Peter Ackroyd and the Michael Moorcock of ‘Mother London’ and ‘London Bone’, my favourite was Iain Sinclair. I’ve been reading his new book, ‘Ghost Milk’, another unclassifiable addition to his metastasising oeuvre. There’s an excellent article/review about Sinclair by Robert Macfarlane in tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) Guardian, which is already up online (although, obviously, you should go out and buy the paper too).
Macfarlane, an excellent writer about the natural world, is perhaps over-critical about the new book. I agree with one of his criticisms in the article, about the ill-advised (although tempting) equivalences made between New Labour and the Nazis, the Grand Project and Guantanamo etc, but I think Sinclair’s work is so idiosyncratic that any response to it must be entirely subjective. He resists normal modes of criticism, and in a sense any reviews of his books, whether they are labelled fiction or non-fiction, can be whittled down to an essential, condensed statement: if this is the kind of thing you like, then you’re going to love it; if not, then you’re not.
If this is the kind of thing you like, then the only lack the reader might feel in Sinclair’s books is that they are finite. Ideally, the emblematic Sinclair text wouldn’t be a few hundred pages between hard or soft covers; it would be a bin bag or a holdall crammed with scraps of paper, bursting notebooks, blurred photographs, eerie recordings and cryptic video images, and part of the experience of “reading” it (or constructing it) would be to walk the distances covered in the narrative (even though the word “narrative” is completely redundant here). Criticising Sinclair on anything other than his own terms is futile; you may as well try to criticise William Burroughs or JG Ballard, writers who created similarly hermetic, hyper-mythologised interior words which they mapped onto a plastic environment, and who fooled people into thinking that the process worked the other way around. Macfarlane is right in that Sinclair offers no real alternatives in ‘Ghost Milk’ to the furious condemnation of the Olympic project in East London, but I don’t feel he’s obliged to do so. Sinclair does not see London in the same way as Peter Ackroyd, as something organic and constantly evolving; his perspective is not as objective as this. He is one of the denizens of this world, and he retains the right to react with fury when his familiar haunts are being so ruthlessly disturbed for no other reason than vanity, pride, hubris and money.
What I like most about Sinclair is that his books are not self-contained; his work sprawls over many volumes, some labelled fiction, some labelled poetry, others labelled travel or history. They are chapters of the same immense work, a combination of memoir and deep, urban topographical analysis. In which case, I wouldn’t point to any specific volume as the best introduction. Pick up anything by him and start reading, and then work your way backwards and forwards from there.