Wandering and Placemaking in London: Iain Sinclair’s Literary Methodology





London, Iain Sinclair, place, literary texts

How to Cite

Seale, K., & Potter, E. (2019). Wandering and Placemaking in London: Iain Sinclair’s Literary Methodology. M/C Journal, 22(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1554
Vol. 22 No. 4 (2019): wandering
Published 2019-08-14

Iain Sinclair is a writer who is synonymous with a city. Sinclair’s sustained literary engagement with London from the mid 1960s has produced a singular account of place in that city (Bond; Baker; Seale “Iain Sinclair”). Sinclair is a leading figure in a resurgent and rebranded psychogeographic literature of the 1990s (Coverley) where on-foot wandering through the city brings forth narrative. Sinclair’s wandering, materialised as walking, is central to the claim of intimacy with the city that underpins his authority as a London writer. Furthermore, embodied encounters with the urban landscape through the experience of “getting lost” in urban environments are key to his literary methodology. Through works such as Lights Out for the Territory (2007), Sinclair has been repeatedly cast as a key chronicler of London, a city focused with capitalist determination on the future while redolent, even weighted, with a past that, as Sinclair says himself, is there for the wanderer to uncover (Dirda).

In this essay, we examine how Sinclair’s wandering makes place in London. We are interested not only in Sinclair’s wandering as a spatial or cultural “intervention” in the city, as it is frequently positioned in critiques of his writing (Wolfreys). We are also interested in how Sinclair’s literary methodology of wandering undertakes its own work of placemaking in material ways that are often obscured because of how his work is positioned within particular traditions of wandering, including those of psychogeography and the flâneur. It is our contention that Sinclair’s wandering has an ambivalent relationship with place in London. It belongs to the tradition of the wanderer as a radical outsider with an alternative practice and perspective on place, but also contributes to contemporary placemaking in a global, neo-liberal London.

Wandering as Literary Methodology

Iain Sinclair’s writing about London is considered both “visionary” and “documentary” in its ambitions and has been praised as “giving voice to lost, erased, or forgotten histories or memories” (Baker 63). Sinclair is the “raging prophet” (Kerr) for a transforming and disappearing city. This perspective is promulgated by Sinclair himself, who in interviews refers to his practice as “bearing witness” to the erasures of particular place cultures, communities, and their histories that a rapidly gentrifying city entails (Sinclair quoted in O’Connell). The critical reception of Sinclair’s perambulation mostly follows Michel de Certeau’s observation that walking is a kind of reading/writing practice that “makes the invisible legible” (Baker 28). Sinclair’s wandering, and the encounters it mobilises, are a form of storytelling, which bring into proximity complex and forgotten narratives of place.

Sinclair may “dive in” to the city, yet his work writing and rewriting urban space is usually positioned as representational. London is a text, “a system of signs […], the material city becoming the (non-material) map” (Baker 29). Sinclair’s wandering is understood as writing about urban transformation in London, rather than participating in it through making place. The materiality of Sinclair’s wandering in the city—his walking, excavating, encountering—may be acknowledged, but it is effectively dematerialised by the critical focus on his self-conscious literary treatment of place in London. Simon Perril has called Sinclair a “modernist magpie” (312), both because his mode of intertextuality borrows from Modernist experiments in form, style, and allusion, and because the sources of many of his intertexts are Modernist writers. Sinclair mines a rich seam of literature, Modernist and otherwise, that is produced in and about London, as well as genealogies of other legendary London wanderers. The inventory includes: “the rich midden of London’s sub-cultural fiction, terse proletarian narratives of lives on the criminous margin” (Sinclair Lights Out, 312) in the writing of Alexander Baron and Emanuel Litvinoff; the small magazine poetry of the twentieth century British Poetry Revival; and the forgotten suburban writings of David Gascoyne, “a natural psychogeographer, tracking the heat spores of Rimbaud, from the British Museum to Wapping and Limehouse” (Atkins and Sinclair 146). Sinclair’s intertextual “loiterature” (Chambers), his wayward, aleatory wandering through London’s archives, is one of two interconnected types of wandering in Sinclair’s literary methodology. The other is walking through the city. In a 2017 interview, Sinclair argued that the two were necessarily interconnected in writing about place in London:

The idea of writing theoretical books about London burgeoned as a genre. At the same time, the coffee table, touristy books about London emerged—the kinds of books that can be written on Google, rather than books that are written by people of the abyss. I’m interested in someone who arrives and takes this journey into the night side of London in the tradition of Mayhew or Dickens, who goes out there and is constantly wandering and finding and having collisions and bringing back stories and shaping a narrative. There are other people who are doing things in a similar way, perhaps with a more journalistic approach, finding people and interviewing them and taking their stories. But many books about London are very conceptual and just done by doing research sitting at a laptop. I don’t think this challenges the city. It’s making a parallel city of the imagination, of literature. (Sinclair quoted in O'Connell)

For Sinclair, then, walking is as much a literary methodology as reading, archival research, or intertextuality is.

Wandering as Urban Intervention

Perhaps one of Sinclair’s most infamous walks is recorded in London Orbital (2003), where he wandered the 127 miles of London’s M25 ring road. London Orbital is Sinclair’s monumental jeremiad against the realpolitik of late twentieth-century neo-liberalism and the politicised spatialisation and striation of London by successive national and local governments. The closed loop of the M25 motorway recommends itself to governmental bodies as a regulated form that functions as “a prophylactic, […] a tourniquet” (1) controlling the flow (with)in and (with)out of London. Travellers’ movements are impeded when the landscape is cut up by the motorway. Walking becomes a marginalised activity it its wake, and the surveillance and distrust to which Sinclair is subject realises the concerns foreshadowed by Walter Benjamin regarding the wanderings of the flâneur. In the Arcades Project, Benjamin quoted a 1936 newspaper article, pessimistically titled “Le dernier flâneur” [The last flâneur]:

A man who goes for a walk ought not to have to concern himself with any hazards he may run into, or with the regulations of a city. […] But he cannot do this today without taking a hundred precautions, without asking the advice of the police department, without mixing with a dazed and breathless herd, for whom the way is marked out in advance by bits of shining metal. If he tries to collect the whimsical thoughts that may have come to mind, very possibly occasioned by sights on the street, he is deafened by car horns, [and] stupefied by loud talkers […]. (Jaloux, quoted in Benjamin 435)

Susan Buck-Morss remarks that flâneurs are an endangered species in the contemporary city: “like tigers, or pre-industrial tribes, [they] are cordoned off on reservations, preserved within the artificially created environments of pedestrian streets, parks, and underground passages” (344). To wander from these enclosures, or from delineated paths, is to invite suspicion as the following unexceptional anecdote from London Orbital illustrates:

NO PUBLIC RITE [sic] OF WAY. Footpaths, breaking towards the forest, have been closed off. You are obliged to stick to the Lee Navigation, the contaminated ash conglomerate of the Grey Way. Enfield has been laid out in grids; long straight roads, railways, fortified blocks. […] In a canalside pub, they deny all knowledge of the old trace. Who walks? “There used to be a road,” they admit. It’s been swallowed up in this new development, Enfield Island Village. […] The hard hat mercenaries of Fairview New Homes […] are suspicious of our cameras. Hands cover faces. Earth-movers rumble straight at us. A call for instruction muttered into their lapels: “Strangers. Travellers.” (69-70)

There is an excess to wandering, leading to incontinent ideas, extreme verbiage, compulsive digression, excessive quotation. De Certeau in his study of the correlation between navigating urban and textual space speaks of “the unlimited diversity” of the walk, highlighting its improvised nature, and the infinite possibilities it proposes. Footsteps are equated with thoughts, multiplying unchecked: “They are myriad, but do not compose a series. […] Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities” (97).  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the erratic trajectories, digression, and diversion of Sinclair’s wanderings are aligned with a tradition of the flâneur as homo ludens (Huizinga) or practitioner of the Situationist derive, as theorised by Guy Debord:

The dérive entails playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, which completely distinguishes it from the classical notions of the journey or the stroll. In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. The element of chance is less determinant than one might think: from the dérive point of view, cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. (“Theory of the dérive” 50)

Like Charles Baudelaire’s painter of modern life, Sinclair is happily susceptible to distraction. The opening essay of Lights Out is a journey through London with the ostensible purpose of diligently researching and reporting on the language he detects on his travels. However, the map for the walk is only ever half-hearted, and Sinclair admits to “hoping for some accident to bring about a final revision” (5). Sinclair’s walks welcome the random and when he finds the detour to disfigure his route, he is content: “Already the purity of the [walk] has been despoiled. Good” (8). 

Wandering’s Double Agent: Sinclair’s Placemaking in London

Much has been made of the flâneur as he appears in Sinclair’s work (Seale “Eye-Swiping”). Nevertheless, Sinclair echoes Walter Benjamin in declaring the flâneur, as previously stereotyped, to be impossible in the contemporary city. The fugeur is one détournement (Debord “Détournement”) of the flâneur that Sinclair proposes. In London Orbital, Sinclair repeatedly refers to his wandering as a fugue. A fugue is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “flight from or loss of the awareness of one’s identity, sometimes involving wandering away from home, and often occurring as a reaction to shock or emotional stress.” As Sinclair explains:

I found the term fugueur more attractive than the now overworked flâneur. Fugueur had the smack of a swear word […]. Fugueur was the right job description for our walk, our once-a-month episodes of transient mental illness. Madness as a voyage. […] The fugue is both drift and fracture. (London Orbital, 146)

Herbert Marcuse observed that to refuse to comply with capitalist behaviour is to be designated irrational, and thus relegate oneself to the periphery of society (9). The neo-liberal city’s enforcement of particular spatial and temporal modalities that align with the logic of purpose, order, and productivity is antagonistic to wandering. The fugue state, then, can rupture the restrictive logic of capitalism’s signifying chains through regaining forcibly expurgated ideas and memories. The walk around the M25 has an unreason to it: the perversity of wandering a thoroughfare designed for cars. In another, oft-quoted passage from Lights Out, Sinclair proposes another avatar of the flâneur:

The concept of “strolling”, aimless urban wandering […] had been superseded. We had moved into the age of the stalker; journeys made with intent—sharp-eyed and unsponsored. The stalker was our role model: purposed hiking, not dawdling, nor browsing. No time for the savouring of reflections in shop windows, admiration for Art Nouveau ironwork, attractive matchboxes rescued from the gutter. This was walking with a thesis. With a prey. […] The stalker is a stroller who sweats, a stroller who knows where he is going, but not why or how. (75)

Not only has the flâneur evolved into something far more exacting and purposeful, but as we want to illuminate, the flâneur’s wandering has evolved into something more material than transforming urban experience and encounter into art or literature as Baudelaire described. In a recent interview, Sinclair stated:  

The walker exists in a long tradition, and, for me, it’s really vital to simply be out there every day—not only because it feels good, but because in doing it you contribute to the microclimate of the city. As you withdraw energy from the city, you are also giving energy back. People are noticing you. You’re doing something, you’re there, the species around you absorb your presence into it, and you become part of this animate entity called the city. (Sinclair quoted in O'Connell)

Sinclair’s acknowledgement that he is acting upon the city through his wandering is also an acknowledgement of a material, grounded interplay between what Jonathan Raban has called the “soft” and the “hard” city: “The city as we might imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture” (quoted in Manley 6). Readers and critics may gravitate to the soft city of Sinclair, but as Donald puts it, “The challenge is to draw the connections between place, archive, and imagination, not only by tracing those links in literary representations of London, but also by observing and describing the social, cultural, and subjective functions of London literature and London imagery” (in Manley, 262).

Sinclair’s most recent longform book, The Last London (2017), is bracketed at both beginning and end with the words from the diarist of the Great Fire of 1666, John Evelyn: “London was, but is no more.” Sinclair’s evocation of the disaster that razed seventeenth-century London is a declaration that twenty-first century London, too, has been destroyed. This time by an unsavoury crew of gentrifiers, property developers, politicians, hyper-affluent transplants, and the creative classes. Writers are a sub-category of this latter group. Ambivalence and complicity are always there for Sinclair. On the one hand, his wanderings have attributed cultural value to previously overlooked aspects of London by the very virtue of writing about them. On the other hand, Sinclair argues that the value of these parts of the city hinges on their neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible when his writing illuminates them. Certainly, wandering the city excavating the secret histories of cities has acquired an elevated cultural currency since Sinclair started writing. In making the East End “so gothically juicy”, Sinclair inaugurated a stream of new imaginings from “young acolyte psychogeographers” (McKay). Moreover, McKay points out that “Sinclair once wryly noted that anywhere he ‘nominated’ soon became an estate agent vision of luxury lifestyle”.

Iain Sinclair’s London wanderings, then, call for a recognition that is more-than-literary. They are what we have referred to elsewhere as “worldly texts” (Potter and Seale, forthcoming), texts that have more-than-literary effects and instead are materially entangled in generating transformative conditions of place. Our understanding sits alongside the insights of literary geography, especially Sheila Hones’s concept of the text as a “spatial event”. In this reckoning, texts are spatio-temporal happenings that are neither singular nor have one clear “moment” of emergence. Rather, texts come into being across time and space, and in this sense can be understood as assemblages that include geographical locations, material contexts, and networks of production and reception. Literary effects are materially, collaboratively, and spatially generated in the world and have “territorial consequences”, as Jon Anderson puts it (127). Sinclair’s writings, we contend, can be seen as materialising versions of place that operate outside the assemblage of “literary” production and realise spatial and socio-economic consequence.

Sinclair’s work does more than mimetically reproduce a “lost” London, or angrily write against the grain of neo-liberal gentrification. It is, in a sense, a geographic constituent that cannot be disaggregated from the contemporary dynamics of the privileges and exclusions of city. This speaks to the author’s ambivalence about his role as a central figure in London writing. For example, it has been noted that Sinclair is “aware of the charge that he’s been responsible as anyone for the fetishization of London’s decrepitude, contributing to an aesthetic of urban decay that is now ubiquitous” (Day). Walking the East End in what he has claimed to be his “last” London book (2017), Sinclair is horrified by the prevalence of what he calls “poverty chic” at the erstwhile Spitalfields Market: a boutique called “Urban Decay” is selling high-end lipsticks with an optional eye makeover. Next door is the “Brokedown Palace […] offering expensive Patagonia sweaters and pretty colourful rucksacks.” Ironically, the aesthetics of decline and ruin that Sinclair has actively brought to public notice over the last thirty years are contributing to this urban renewal. It could also be argued that Sinclair’s wandering is guilty of “the violence of spokesmanship”, which sublimates the voices of others (Weston 274), and is surely no longer the voice of the wanderer as marginalised outsider.  

When textual actors become networked with place, there can be extra-textual consequences, such as Sinclair’s implication in the making of place in a globalised and gentrified London. It shifts understanding of Sinclair’s wandering from representational and hermeneutic interpretation towards materialism: from what wandering means to what wandering does. From this perspective, Sinclair’s wandering and writing does not end with the covers of his books. The multiple ontologies of Sinclair’s worldly texts expand and proliferate through the plurality of composing relations, which, in turn, produce continuous and diverse iterations in an actor-network with place in London. Sinclair’s wanderings produce an ongoing archive of the urban that continues to iteratively make place, through multiple texts and narrative engagements, including novels, non-fiction accounts, journalism, interviews, intermedia collaborations, and assembling with the texts of others—from the many other London authors to whom Sinclair refers, to the tour guides who lead Time Out walking tours of “Sinclair’s London”. Place in contemporary London therefore assembles across and through an actor-network in which Sinclair’s wandering participates. Ultimately, Sinclair’s wandering and placemaking affirm Manley’s statement that “the urban environment in which (and in response to which) so much of English literature has been written has itself been constructed in many respects by its representation in that literature—by the ideas, images, and styles created by writers who have experienced or inhabited it” (2).


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Author Biographies

Kirsten Seale, University of New South Wales

Kirsten Seale is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Art and Design at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). She is the author of Markets, Places, Cities (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor of Informal Urban Street Markets (Routledge, 2015). She has published widely on the intersections between cities, place, and cultural production. 

Emily Potter, Deakin University

Emily Potter is a literary and cultural studies researcher whose work returns to themes of place-making practice and postcolonial environments. Her books include Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (MIT Press, 2015, with Gay Hawkins and Kane Race) and the forthcoming Field Notes on Belonging: Non-indigenous Australian Writing at the Millennium (Intellect, 2019). She is Associate Head of School (Research) and Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Deakin University.