Wednesday, 5 November 2014

INTERVIEWED: At Home with Iain Sinclair

Lunchtime in Hackney: the haves are long gone, leaving the haven'ts congregated around London Fields to enjoy their precious hours without bother. It has been a while since I actively bought into the myth of Hackney, as illuminated by Iain Sinclair: his walks, his talks, his layers of wayward, place-fixated prose. I arrived, today, by train from Walthamstow, where the priced-out E8-ers end up, endlessly arriving at and departing from Liverpool Street, sat between ASOS-sified and iPhone-tied office workers, and old ladies (Bernie Ecclestones in lilac) on a day out from the edges of London.

I ring the bell and Iain Sinclair ushers me into the pleasantly just-so interior of his unassuming but ample Georgian terraced house, tucked right inside the estate agents' sweet spot between London Fields and Haggerston Station in Hackney. He has lived here with his wife Anna ever since they bought the house for £3,500 from East End emigres inevitably bound for Essex in 1968. We shuffle in a half silence up the staircase, pass a room that seems to quake with books, and enter an upstairs sitting room, where Sinclair offers me a large comfortable sofa.

He has been here before: the interminable interview. Sinclair is a compromised yet industrious yes man, giving interviews away like they are going out of fashion. Though he frequently mythologises the recluse or outsider in his books – the Hackney Mole Man, Howard Hughes, a hermit in his hometown of Maesteg, Wales – he is far from succumbing to such a lifestyle himself. His eagerness to promote is a legacy from his years in the book trade, starting his own Albion Village Press in the 1970s, paying his way through odd jobs such as gardening in Limehouse to fund his feverish investigations of London, starting with the 1975 self-publication of Lud Heat, which set into motion his particular brand of prose-poetry, semi-fictionalised reportage featuring a cast of characters including Anna, and wildly acute asides.

His still seems a humble existence, despite the popularity of his particular brand of "psychogeography" – a term that has threatened to become an albatross around his neck. It doesn't seem that long ago that he had become a visible figure of dissent against the 'Grand project': books such as London Orbital (2002), Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), and Ghost Milk (2011) sniped at Thatcherite dealings and international bureaucracy while romanticising Sinclair's very personal version of the locale. It afforded him a greater platform, culminating with the run-up to the 2012 Olympics and the territorial, televisual barkings of Soundbite Era Sinclair.

After his moment at the forefront of a kind of protest literature, Sinclair seems somehow out of time again: a man of print on paper, predating the digitised, the constancy of the instant; the Century of the Self safely locked away from the Society of the Selfie. His face is set in a state of tense acceptance: grim yet kind, benign but in tune. The calm after the storm. He emanates a feeling of strange serenity, punctured by an active mind that is so obviously constrained by this perfunctory occasion. His sandled foot wriggles and waves up and down throughout the interview, while the effervescent bubbling of collective screeches and screams from the local school playground rises and falls.

Sat here, he seems more than two-years estranged from the cauldron of 2012. Since then, during this, the year of his 70th birthday (he is 71 next Wednesday, according to Wikipedia), he has looked back to his past, chasing the ghosts of the Beat Generation in American Smoke, and undertaking the impromptu film series 70 x 70, which has explored filmic inspirations and connections during seventy screenings of in out-the-way venues (usual suspects of Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting plus Herzog, Hitchcock, Godard, Fassbinder), culminating with an event at the Barbican this weekend, an undertaking born out of a long-term, shambling relationship with Blast First founder and Ken Kesey fanatic, Paul Smith.

Like Swans' uncompromising frontman Michael Gira, the pursuit of liberation that you feel guides Sinclair's artistic work comes from a very specific moment: the late 1960s. Gira's creative awakening was seeing Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago at a hippy festival in Belgium while tripping on acid at the age of fourteen; Sinclair's was the Dialectics Of Liberation conference at London's Roundhouse, where he filmed Allen Ginsberg and heard the anti-psychiatry teachings of RD Laing, a chance encounter that sparked a lifetime of circling this perceived moment of total freedom, what it means and meant. In many ways it is a moment he has never left.

So, is the 70 x 70 project Paul Smith's baby?

Iain Sinclair: It is, it is. He thought it up and suggested it and launched it, and he has been the eminence behind it.

Your relationship is an interesting one; it's one of London relationships that keeps bobbing along.

IS: It's quite strange in some ways, given Paul's background and mine – it's very different. It was the 1980s. Paul was living in Limehouse where I was working as a gardener. I was writing about Hawksmoor churches and all of that and he'd read my stuff – he liked the idea of me dealing with the territory he was living in and mythologising it, so he got in touch with me. I didn't know who he was. We met up in a pub there and he told me he had an idea of starting doing spoken word – CDs or LPs or whatever. But he was really interested in getting started on that label. I put him in touch with [writer and co-founder International Times] Barry Miles, there was an archive of stuff by people like Ken Kesey and Charles Bukowski, black power tapes, and Paul started talking about assembling this collection.

I didn't see him for ten years or something and I had forgotten all about it. And then he kind of came back one day, and said 'We're gonna go and record it in Harrow Road,' so I went off to this studio, and there was nobody there except an engineer. He said, 'Off you go,' and I said, 'Off I go what?' He said, 'Just do it'. So we made this series of recordings. I read bits of Downriver. Bruce Gilbert of Wire, who I met through Paul and got on well with, finessed sound interludes that went between these readings. CDs were produced but then they were rather mysterious in their release. Nobody actually got to see them. They still exist, I mean it was a very good collection of stuff. That was the beginning of the relationship with Paul. He had a subsidiary interest in live performance: cabaret-like materials that would involve music and readings, people like Stewart Home, Bill Drummond. It culminated with a week of events at Bridewell Theatre, in the city by St. Bride's Church, which had once been a printers' theatre with this swimming pool underneath, where there were some performance art pieces given. For a week he curated a series of events, with writers being interviewed and performing, along with Alan Moore and Cathy Acker, people like that. Derek Raymond gave his last reading there – he died two weeks after doing it. Chris Petit showed bits of film, there was music, the whole bit. It was Paul's vision.

Had you worked with Alan Moore before?

IS: No, though I knew him. I had worked with Brian Catling, who is a performance artist, poet and filmmaker, and I had worked a bit with Chris Petit, we'd started to make films together for Channel 4, one of which, The Cardinal & The Corpse, included Alan Moore and Derek Raymond in the film and is showing this weekend. That was the first film I did with Chris Petit, which was like a film that curated a particular group of underground, countercultural writers who were not very visible, resulting in a 35-minute film about them for Channel 4. Subsequently Paul did another series in The Slaughterhouse, which was a cellar beneath Smithfield, around the time that Lights Out For the Territory [1997] was published, so we had another week's worth of events in this cellar with a gallery space upstairs. The culmination of it all, I guess, was at the Barbican for the M25 book, London Orbital, in 2002, which was a big show, a kind of three-dimensional version of the book. Chris Petit had three screens with road footage playing all the time. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty and Wire all played, Ken Campbell performed and I read, making it a complete performance event from the book.

Are you and Paul contemporaries, or is he younger than you?

IS: Paul is younger than me.

What is interesting – and it ties in with your most recent book American Smoke – is that kernel of the 1960s, when you are first moving to London: the "giant leap", as you wrote, of Camden's radical bookseller Compendium Books … People are always looking back to that moment; there seems to be an unwillingness of people who might be attuned to the idea of a poetic, radical London to let go of it.

IS: There is definitely a kind of movement here in Hackney, people like the Test Centre, who got in touch with me recently, to try and regenerate some part of that spirit: Will Shutes actually gets an old typewriter and physically types out manuscripts of the 1960s, which seems a weirdly retro thing to do, or produces vinyl LPs in this day and age. It has got this slightly retro-chic way of looking back at what they find to be an inspirational moment but to take it on into other things. The essential basic idea was you could just do things yourselves. You were in charge of production and you didn't need to waste endless time trying to get sponsorship or commissions because things could be done very, very cheaply. That's the difference now – to some extent with the internet and so on you can do things, but you can't actually produce the books and films in the way that you could at that time. Secondly, you had much cheaper places to live – it was very feasible to live for nothing. There was lots of squatting going on here, and communal housing. And to buy a house was incredibly cheap, virtually anyone could do it, whereas now, you'd have to be a millionaire to move here.

Which has fed into this increasing realisation that London does not have the spaces to explore that it once did. It is debatable whether you could find one of the places in the City to do an event like the collaborations with Paul, for example.

IS: The collaborations with Paul have been much more difficult to do because those kinds of spaces you are able to get are vanishing. We got old synagogues in Whitechapel; we did an event in the Tower House building down in Whitechapel, which is now converted into luxury flats, but was at the time a homeless people's shelter, just this huge, gaunt empty building. There were dozens of spaces in the city that you could exploit very easily. Now there are not. The same spaces charge you 1000 quid to have them for a night, whereas it was actually free at that time. This changes the whole way that you operate.

Though London acts as a barometer for you, do you think it is indicative of a more general global change in attitudes? Everything is priced up…

IS: Sure, everything is priced up. It just is utterly different culturally. I've just been on the Overground Railway now and looking at every single person in front of me is on this electronic thing. They are all woven into another kind of universe, instead of, maybe, at one time, more people were pondering the topography of the place that they are coming through and were interested in it. Now there is a sense that there is no history. You are literally living in a present that is self-erasing as the days go by.

I was going to ask you about technology. As a writer your research would have once been part and parcel of your book trade background, obsessively collecting material. But now, obviously, there's Google. I wondered how much you engage with that world?

IS: I don't really engage with it much at all, but I can appreciate that this is the way it is, this is the new world. For me, the whole fun of the book trading era that I was involved in is that it was like bounty hunting, scavenging – you could go out into the country, find things, and everybody didn't know everything. Whereas now, at the touch of a button, all knowledge is theoretically available. I am told that people are going into small bookshops, photographing title pages, and they'll check them before they buy a book, so there is this whole other process of discrimination, whereas once upon a time you just dealt with these objects as objects, and I'm still in that mindset, I can't really adjust. Although for pure research it is very useful to be able to check something instantly rather than my usual stumbling about through hundreds of books to check a fact.

There is an argument that the internet has allowed us to self-publish even more now – we're coming out of the end of the blogging boom, and now we in a social-media age. People constantly self-publishing what are essentially thoughts of 140 characters.

IS: It's so ephemeral to me it is absurd. For me, it is the kind of thing that you write in a notebook, look at it hard, and decide whether it is worth doing something with, whereas now, that process doesn't occur – you just spit it straight out: there it is. It is a slurry, this mass of endless stuff. It is actually rewiring brains in a new way, this instant-hit thing. The downside of it is you are not dealing with a known corpus of work or memory, that's gone, it is an instant series of flashes that have to register immediately. The actual process of having to work your way through the whole architecture of a book is disappearing.

In American Smoke, you mention visiting the place where Kerouac's diary is kept. These kinds of artefacts might be extinct very soon, with writers putting their thoughts online.

IS: At the actual place where I saw Kerouac's original in the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin, Texas, there was this huge, very rich depository of all this stuff. Piles of some stuff that you'd think was junk and actual libraries that belonged to Norman Mailer – and here's Kerouac's book. Upstairs, where I was looking at my old notebooks and things that were piled up on a table, they were beginning to sort through hard drives. I had thrown away my original hard drive. I just had it on a skip and it was going. I thought, wait a minute, this holds more material than those notebooks, so I rescued it and they bought that as part of my archive. It was sitting there on the table in Texas, a battered old hard drive, where they can extract all the versions of all of the books I had written on it. The first things were handwritten, typewriter all of that. Since Lights Out Of The Territory they have been written on a computer. The original one was this great big hefty thing. That's gone and it's now over there. But now, I can see those places will be accumulating memory sticks or whatever, I don't know what form it will take, but it'll all be electronic and it'll all be some massively weird place, rather than the idea that you can actually physically pick up old note books and sketch books, a little diary written by Charlotte Bronte, all those things that are quite exciting.

Do you remember which authors' hard drives they had?

IS: I remembered the one next to mine was Norman Mailer's. It was so old and clapped out. They had actually got this young woman who was the first person to be appointed, because it had never arisen before. I think Salman Rushdie was one of the first who had sold a hard drive to them. It really hadn't occurred to people to actually start acquiring these. And equally, people might be nervous of selling them because it might have all kinds of personal information, who knows what. The one I had only used for writing books on and stuff – apart from that it probably had my kids' homework on. Now people are much more conscious than that. There will be experts who will be accumulating electronic files and materials. Just imagine the sheer quantity of email exchanges that goes on. How will you ever sift through all that? I'm sure they will, but… Traditionally the estate of James Joyce or whatever always publish the author's letters at a certain point. Imagine the same information now, but through someone's emails. It will just be gigantic. What will you do? Would you sift through all that and try and extract a version that is worth publishing as a book, or will you let people roam through the whole thing? It's completely changed, obviously, and we are only at the very beginning of it, and it's happening so fast it is quite extraordinary.

While you were on the trip you were compiling and making notes yourself, for American Smoke. The resulting prose really reflects the fact that you are suddenly free from London.

IS: It was quite liberating. It had been such a battle in a sense, over the whole era of these projects that were being cooked up – from the Millenium Dome to the Olympics. The language around that tends to become polemic. You get drawn into a series of positions to be defended, and essentially you can't win, I know that. So I found something completely other, referencing earlier parts of my life; it felt like a really upbeat project to do.

How did it come about – was it your idea? I know you wrote some essays for London Review Of Books, on Gary Snyder and Edward Dorn…

IS: That was partly to help fund the trip. I was going to interview Gary anyway, but it just occurred to me that if I offered it to them, it might help me pay my way by doing various bits and pieces. I didn't do those bits and pieces and then think about the book. I had the book planned first and wondered what I could do to fund it.

Had you reached a kind of end point with Hackney: A Rose Red Empire and then Ghost Milk?

IS: Yes. Because so much of what I had done had grown out of the landscape and investigating that landscape, finding out about it, making fictions and documentary study, it was gone, it was all enclosed. It was like the moment of enclosures of the poet John Clare. So, ok, I'll go back to the New Old World and start again, somewhat as if it was that 1960s moment. But of course a lot of the people now were dead, they were ghosts, and the places they were in had changed massively. But nevertheless it felt like the right project to do to start something new, rather than the earlier project. It had finished. I really felt, that's it. After those books… Hackney had summed up my memories of this place and the Ghost Milk one was an end game. And so I started afresh with this book.

And that's an interesting thing to do for any writer I suppose – but for you, there is a concentrated 20-odd year period where you are stalking east London as far as Shoeburyness, almost as some kind of answer to the legacies of Thatcherism, questioning what was coming to pass and what seems to have come to pass irreversibly now. Did you just have to shed that and start anew?

IS: It wasn't an overnight thing. It was more a mood that evolved when I was writing Ghost Milk in particular. What happened at the end of that was when the Olympics came along I found, because I published essays in the LRB, I was getting asked a lot to be the token opposition to all this, and that was getting pretty insane. I was doing dozens of weird TV walks with people from Germany and Switzerland and Peru and God knows what. I just began to hate the sound of my own voice doing the same arguments over and over and over.

I was going to ask you about that, because there was a point when you and Will Self were alternated on BBC as the anti-Olympic voice.

IS: I think the final straw was with Laura Oldfield Ford; we were in Cheltenham for the literary festival and there was a medallist rower and a sports journalist from The Guardian, who were kind of saying how wonderful it all was. We were talking about very specific things that had happened and this mob really got ugly, really vicious. When Laura was in the green room to get food, she was physically attacked by these people. I thought, this is demented – they've actually swallowed it. They've never been anywhere near the places we're talking about, and yet you're not even allowed to make these arguments, which were not being made in any kind of vicious way. I thought, really, I've had it: I'm out. I'd been asked to go and do something in Gloucester Massachusetts, and off I went. Also I was working on a project with Andrew Kötting on the film Swandown, taking a swan pedalo from Hastings to the Olympic site, which we made a film about: a kind of absurdist anti-Olympic marathon.

And you literally make your exit on camera – you abort the project to go to Massachusetts.

IS: It took so long I literally had to leap out and cross London to get the plane out to America, so it was on my head very much as I travelled.

The Beat Generation have been regurgitated endlessly, but it is refreshing to hear their appeal to you at the time, as opposed to writers over here. It's nailed in a line or two, when you are talking about the anti-establishment English writers and playwrights, who within five minutes would get absorbed into the establishment.

IS: Yes, and they all tended to become very right wing. Essentially their criticism was based on their own exclusion and once they were included they wanted to defend the centre and were becoming great fans of Mrs Thatcher by the end, living in a disgruntled state, drinking in the country.

Are you referring to anyone in particular?

IS: Well obviously John Osborne became blimpish and angry, and the more interesting things he did were angry memoirs, his plays were not being done any more. John Braine was lumped together as being one of the 'Angry Young Men', but he never was: he was just writing about social climbing and social exclusion. And Kingsley Amis, above all others, became this terrible old drunk who was just being misogynist and vile about everything and making it into a comedy number. Martin doesn't have quite the same attitudes but he's continuing somewhat down the same road.

And to counter them, these figures that were floating into the bookshops from across the Atlantic seem much more stoic and rooted to place – and not compromised. They were something you could believe in as a student.

IS: And I think they had much more to react against. Talking to Gary Snyder, for having a trade union affiliation he loses his job with the Forestry Service. That kind of paranoia of 50s America – the anti-communist paranoia – was really extreme. They could be excluded from universities, lose jobs, all of that stuff. So, they were much more embattled figures than any of the British people were. But also there was this moment when they became more famous than anyone – rock-starry famous, Life magazine and Time magazine and all that, which Ginsberg had always wanted to do but it destroyed Kerouac completely. It absolutely killed him off. The mother-fixated life that he had, and his family histories of drink: he drank so much and he became so sour. It had taken him so long to achieve success and when it came it was overwhelming, and he certainly didn't ever find any way of coping with it. The interesting period for him was when he was completely unsuccessful, but he was producing most of the work in quite a short period of time, on the road. All of the things he would later mine. There was no second act; that was it. It was finished.

There are some interesting links that you make with the childhood of Kerouac and your own in Wales – the elders who have a different language to you – Welsh – whereas he was hearing French Canadian. Did you find these links during writing the book or much earlier?

IS: I knew it a bit. I started reading him when I was sixteen and I didn't know anything about him, but the particular book I was reading was set in an American industrial town, which felt very similar to the Welsh mining town I was growing up in: a kind of small place where everybody knew everything, there was a romance around the football team, all that stuff. And the fact that he was French Canadian and spoke this patois as his first language, in the way that my mother's family are all Welsh speaking and I'd just grown up hearing this other language as the first language all the time. I saw those parallels at that time, which was what interested me in his writing. And obviously the whole romance of getting out, moving off, doing these things which I didn't know how real or unreal it was, but it seemed like a frontier landscape with much wider possibilities than anything you can get in Britain.

I'm from Essex, and can see why you went down the Thames for Downriver [1991] and Dining On Stones [2004]. Was it to find a similar feeling, as if there is nowhere else in Britain to go in terms of freeing your mind?

IS: The Thames is a phenomenal freeing of the mind anyway, as there is the possibility of going out on the water. The Thames carries that with it, this incredible sense of exchange of all of these different cultures coming in. Anyone along that stretch could get on a boat and find themselves in Indonesia, China, Australia, wherever. It is actually open to the world in a way that other places are locked off and sealed – you aren't going anywhere if you are in an English country village.

Looking back at the feverish literary production of mid-20th century America from the vantage point of where you are today, is there a danger of becoming nostalgic?

IS: I don't think there is a danger of nostalgia for me – I've paid my dues to that period – and also I think there was a lot wrong with it. It was interesting to see some of these people and realise how difficult they were and how self-promoting they would have to be to establish their positions and survive. I was also interested in the ones who hadn't survived: people like Lou Welch, the poet who was a friend of Kerouac and Gary Snyder who just disappeared into the woods, presumably committed suicide, and there were a lot of other people like that, casualties of this battle of the weight of American paranoia, flag beating and all of that stuff that is much heavier there, because they are new people. They've got to go through those ways in a sense that we don't have to because we are old and corrupt in our colonialism. It's a different set up; it's a much richer, denser set up here. That's something else that struck me quite strongly.

Britain needs these kinds of influences for its intellectual health. At the moment we are going through this fairly strong anti-intellectual period in terms of culture…

IS: And also anti-European. We do [need that external input]. Some of the best energies coming into London come from other places: brief periods when the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine were living here, doing lots of nocturnal ramblings in London and up the Thames, and create prose-poem form that gives a sense of the city which is much more dramatic and energised than anything people in England who are still bound to their forms are doing. Time and time again, that's the case; it goes right through. Céline, one of my favourite crazy French writers, was here during the First World War, and writes these incredibly dynamic books about London in a way that no local writers could dream of doing.

And I suppose you come from a culture that is 'other' to London. Do you think you benefit from not being from here, as opposed to someone like Will Self, who always seems to be wearing his 'I'm a Londoner' badge?

IS: Oh, yeah. It's a big advantage. Everyone from London is from somewhere else at some point, but there are definite advantages to arriving with baggage from somewhere else. It makes you a little wide-eyed about what London is, rather than that eternal cannibalising of London self. And London to me takes in all the territory to Southend and Brighton, there is a kind of circle, it still is this London thing.

Your film of Allen Ginsberg Ah! Sunflower is showing on Saturday at 70x70. Was that a formative event for you?

IS: My first book essentially was about that episode of filming Ginsberg in 1967, which was a really a crucial year for me and for that whole culture. All sorts of things from earlier periods came to the boil then, with the whole movement of anti-psychiatry with RD Laing and David Cooper and those people, who were operating in the suburban asylums of London, exactly the territory that was dismissed and decommissioned at the time I was doing London Orbital. That's where they were, and they were allowed to carry out experimental communities, using LSD and so on. It was a strange moment, that they should be combined with a poet like Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael who was the spokesperson for Black Power, Gregory Bateson the anthropologist, Herbert Marcuse the philosopher – all of these people were suddenly in London in one big hit, and that was a really major series of ideas that were churned up, and that people fed on for quite a while afterwards.

By an accident, I was there: young at the time [Sinclair was 24], I had got this commission by German TV to make this film with Ginsberg. So that provided me with a lot of material to think about for a long time, and also stimulated me into starting a small press to publish the account of what was going on during the filming, because I felt we needed to use all the tapes that had been involved, rather than the small bit that you can actually get into a film. That will be shown at the beginning of 70x70, and I'm also showing films from earlier than that, which I made as a student in Dublin after leaving London after my first stint studying film there. I came back to London to live, and got a job teaching part-time at the North East London Technical College & School of Art, I think it was called, in Walthamstow – this great long building. I used to go out there three days a week teaching and was working on documentary film and things the rest of the time. And in the summer of 67 I got this commission. It was really free: the people who were there were interesting students. In previous generations, Ken Russell had been there, and Patrick Keiller was teaching in the architecture department later on. It was an interesting place to be.

It is fairly unusual for an author known for writing novels and literary books to have such a close association with filmmaking.

IS: They are always combined in my mind. The writing was the more central activity, but a part of my research involved collaborating with people who might be involved in the book, to make a parallel film – to some extent that happened later on with works with Chris Petit and Andrew Kötting. In the earlier days when I was first living here, a bunch of people were making an 8mm diary project around establishing a life and community in Hackney – that was like the notebooks and things that I subsequently write.

What did it give you, shooting this stuff alongside your writing?

IS: It is like a memory, a living memory, and it's also a good way to test stuff that you are going to write and to look at it in a different way – and maybe it's going to be nothing to do with what you write, but it's the same process: the process of research, and seeing the dramas in situations. If you're filming you've got to get the essence; you've got to concentrate on getting key images, key moments, and be economic with the material because it was too expensive. All those disciplines are useful when it comes to writing. I think it is free-flowing: the grammar of film has been quite influential on the way that I write. One thing I hate writing is film scripts – partly because they are things that are probably not going to get made, so it's kind of dead writing, and secondly I've always found the structure depressing and formulaic. The films that I have made have never really had scripts as such. They evolve; there are things written, but nothing that looks like a film script.

What are you working on at the moment?

IS: I am finishing off another book at the moment, which having said what I did before seems a bit strange because it is back to London. But I was very struck by the new Overground Railway which became a complete circuit of London – the 'Ginger Line' as they call it. It changed things so dramatically around where my local station is, Haggerston: you get a particular kind of building. Flats grow parasitically on it. Activities that go on underneath the railway arches under it are extraordinary. Then I thought it would be interesting to go round this entire circuit in one day on foot. To walk from Haggerston right down to Peckham and Denmark Hill and Clapham, and right the way round in one day. Angela Carter lived very close to Clapham. I visited her when I was just starting out as a writer and going past her door conjured up interesting memories that I have never written about, that period when I started writing novels for the first time. The painter Leon Kossoff lives in Willesden on the railway again. A lot of his painting is about railways. He used to have a studio just up the road here in Dalston Junction: on the railway, overlooking it. He became the titular spirit of that railway. He figures quite heavily in the book, and JG Ballard wrote his book about Chelsea Marina not so long ago. All those people appear in the course of this book. And it is also sociologically about the incredible changes that the railway brings to London and how shopping malls grow up around them. Old businesses get dispersed, weird new things appear. It felt like an upbeat project, because the walk was done in a day.

So you are not moving away from London any time soon?

IS: No, I don't think so. I'm stuck here. But I think I'd like the next book after this one to be out there again. Somewhere.

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