"After Lights out for The Territory, a man sent me an X ray of his brain tumour. He'd superimposed it over a map of London and was trying to heal himself by walking out its routes through the city."
Iain Sinclair's dense and feverish explorations of London have made him one of Britain's most respected authors. From the word storms of White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings, which interweaves dark tales of the contemporary book trade with channelled glimpses of the Ripper murders, to the all-encompassing, microscopic sprawl of the essays in Lights Out For the Territory, Sinclair's vision is unique. For his latest book, Landor's Tower, Sinclair has gone West, to Wales, incorporating Alfred Watkins, Arthur Machen and the 25 unsolved defence industry 'suicides' of the early 1980s. Mark Pilkington and Phil Baker met him in his East London Home.
What initially prompted you to get out of London for Landor's Tower?
Well initially I was out of London - I grew up in South Wales, so that was familiar ground for me, though I never had any impulse to write about it. London was the subject that triggered me to write. London gives you anonymity, you can spook about the place like a spy with no problems at all. But at the back of my mind was a long term project, which started with White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings to do four books of a particular kind, the second one of which would go back to Wales. I started out on it in 1987. After finishing the first book I went down there and got this cottage to live in, to do the research, and I just found myself completely spooked by the atmosphere of this place. It was later revealed that this had been taken for the winter by Terry Waite, and at that moment he was locked up in a basement in Beirut...
So I retreated and came back to London. Our house was being renovated and some Irish builders had knocked great chunks of it down and then, as they do, disappeared. With our house half built, I couldn't work on this substantial structure that turned out to be Llandor's Tower. So I started to do Downriver, which was easier because I could do it in twelve separate chunks, and do odd days, so the project was abandoned for years. Then, with an interest in things like the Tony Collins book about the 25 suicides in the defence industry, elements were gradually adding on to the original idea of the West Country - the whole idea of Going West and running out of your permissions, crossing borders, life and death and all those things, made it something of an obsession. I just waited until I had got space and time to do it.
The book must have changed significantly over the years.
It's changed hugely, the original impulse was this one site of Llanthony Abbey, which I'd visited as a youth and revisited several times in the '70s. I wanted to tease out that particular story and the original form stayed, like a ghost in the finished book. But the finished book had taken on things from films I'd been doing, and had split in half, so that you've got an alter ego who's following this trail from Bristol to the West Country where everybody seems to have disappeared - a burial ground of paranoia and conspiracy - and the right hand path into Wales could be traced by the narrator trying to trace elements of Welsh mythology and notions of The Light, notions of the utopian.
Have you found out anything more about the Defence industry deaths since starting on the book?
I haven't got any further than that they happened. But before that I had actually been keeping a file of cuttings about the case. One of the guys who ran a magazine called Entropy in Bristol sent me Tony Collins book, and I didn't follow up any research of my own, except to visit most of the sites and sniff around, because I preferred not to do it as a full blown investigation, because I think it's a dead end - you're never going to get to the bottom of that one. It's pretty strange. To me the most extraordinary and extreme case was this young woman who's completely bound and gagged and supposed to have tottered across the road in high heels and drowned herself in a gravel pit. It's announced as suicide and that's the end of it. What I like about the story is that it is unsolvable, that it is a dead end. And the absurd journey from London to the West, ending in such a piece of theatre. It's exactly like '70s TV, it's The Avengers and all those preposterous things that used to be enacted in the woods around Shepperton.
You mentioned 'The Light' and Welsh mythology, is this where Arthur Machen's influence comes in?
Well the thing with Machen is that he spent so many years in London, doubling up the labyrinthine element of walking around London and picking into its mysteries with perpetual dreams and obsessions of pagan gods emerging in the Welsh border landscape and alien visitations, and the Grail. So that's the sort of superficial level, but beneath it the structure of the Mabinogion, the classic of Welsh mythology, to do with the quest, and the figure of the woman, who's obviously related to Robert Graves' White Goddess and the notion of inspiration, but she may also just be this psychotic who has fixated on a true character known to David Jones, who he paints repeatedly, and has the same biography.
In some respects Llandor's Tower is like a mirror inversion of Machen's Hill of Dreams - where Machen's obsessive, haunted character comes from Wales to London to try to write.
This is very true and, in biographical terms, the poet character is based on somebody I know who was born in the south London suburbs and spent his time cutting grass in London, then took himself off to Wales to try to spend the rest of his life immersed in Welsh themes. He ended up with nothing to talk about except the weather. Because you're so isolated it all disappears. I went the opposite way and came to London to write about it, and always felt that he was doing the job that I should have been doing and couldn't. I didn't want to. It's a system of mirrors and reflections and contraries.
What do you think it is about Machen's writing that causes it to endure so well?
Partly, I think, it's the rhythmic nature of the language, it's incantatory. But there's also this sense of revelation, that he has some great secret that he's always on the point of revealing. There's also a sort of muted sadism beneath this that you're never quite comfortable with. Things like the bit I quote in the book about the woman who has a brain operation - it's really ferocious stuff, but it's enacted in a sort of paradise-like pastoral landscape. I find those conjunctions very interesting. Then there's a sequence in N, set in Stoke Newington, where they're in a pub and on the wall are engravings of Llantony Abbey! I get a real buzz from that!
The late author and occultist Gerald Suster suggested that Machen's mania may have been brought on by a magical initiation he undertook that prevented him from masturbating for several months...
John Cooper Powys is another writer whose work has a similar feel, a sort of masturbatory energy, always building up to some climax that he never allows himself to enact. He gets himself hugely worked up and then the energy bursts out in some other way, with an obsession with stones, pebbles or stars - whatever it would be. I think there is that level of magical reading to this whole text. A lot of these characters have reached a state of febrile excitement, but they're never able to achieve release or resolution, or an orgasmic state.
How do you actually go about the process of putting a book of this density together?
The material is gathered up over a long period of time, and I make strange charts of how various people are going to come in over time, and then just let rip! It's written fairly quickly, over three or four months, but there's a lot of stuff being gathered and sorted for ten or twelve years beforehand. So I guess the density comes from the fact that there's too much stuff to work in, but everything does seem to take its place, and I was relatively satisfied that all the different elements came through in a way that I wanted them to.
Where do yoyu think your writing - the actual words and phrases, especially in your poetry - come from?
I don't know, it's impossible to answer! The way I work, it's largely coming from place, my system has always been to meditate on certain areas or structures, then to visit them and walk about until I get into some kind of slightly mediumistic contact with the story. If it's going to work you find that your intuitions are usually pretty good. And then all kinds of clues and documents start to arrive - the way they do in this book. Somebody will pass you the tape or document you need for the next stage and really it is like, with the very first sentence, you've entered into some kind of Faustian contract and a voice, or a series of voices, are telling the story, and you go with that. It is a form of mild possession when it works and the care comes in revising it. But certainly that's how it operates.
How much of the material, in any of your books, is taken from your own life?
Well, everything! It's all variants on things I've known. Much of the process is editing, not creating. There's no pure invention - everything is shifted.
For example the foot story, one of the most extreme in Llandor's Tower, is almost entirely documentary. This was only a few years ago - I was having a meal with my parents in their house on a raining, wild night, and this guy turns up and disappears for a long chat with my father. They come back and he says he's going to be killed in two weeks. And sure enough he died a couple of weeks later, leaving this tranche of papers and documents that went back over years and years. He'd been a conscientious objector, and he was sure that the government were out to get him. Someone had tried to shove him under a train, and all the rest of his life had been spent going to hospitals trying to get them to X ray this bone to prove that something had been shoved into his foot to cripple him. It's one of those things that justifies paranoia. The story he tells is impossible, but then he does die. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, who knows, but I found reading these journals and papers very, very spooky. Where it comes into the book, although it sounds very extreme and extraordinary, you do get a sense that if this is true, where does that leave you with the rest? It's only when it spins at the end that it's released back into a kind of fiction.
All your writing has this tremendous sense of pathology. Do you think that's anything to do with being the son of a doctor?
Well, my father and grandfather were both doctors, so there was always lot of stuff lying around - bones and bits. I never wanted to be a doctor myself, but I was still interested in those procedures, so I suppose I use those metaphors as a way of reading the world.
This goes with the scavenging and book dealing, rummaging around and finding things. Sometimes you can begin to believe that you're guided, that it is a kind of magic, the serendipity of finding what you need to find. Then these found bits of text become the inspiration for some form of writing.
You started out as a filmmaker, how has that influenced your writing?
I think that's another aspect of the forensic. I had a small Bolex camera, so for years you could step back and see the world through this thing. That's a fairly extreme form of concentration, and I always felt that it made things happen, because you get into a really mediumistic relationship with the thing you're looking at so it's a lot to do with voyeurism, mirrors, and all that. Also, rhythms and cutting. That's the way I write, jumping between subjects that some people find hard to take, but to me it's a completely natural grammar, to leap about in that way. White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings was much more extreme, because when I wrote that I didn't have any expectation of a public audience, so accessibility wasn't a consideration. It just derived from the poetry I'd been involved with before. It's much more intense, but now that I've got to this book I have done a few things and there's a way of presenting it that makes it, I hope, more accessible.
Psychogeography is now an idea that many more people will be familiar with than they were even five years ago. How do you feel about your involvement with it?
In its classic sense I don't think I had anything to do with it. But the whole term has been dusted down and reinvented and re-used by people like Stewart Home and The London Psychogeographical Association. There was a kind of strategy to this rebranding, I was quite happy to run with it as a franchise, as a way of talking about doing the things I'd always done and providing a useful description that could be discussed in public. It became a bit of a monster on the back of that.
Do you remember when the word itself began to creep into your work?
I don't know, certainly by Lights Out For the Territory, I think it may have started coming in earlier, then out again.
Were you ever interested in the Situationists or Lettrists?
In passing, certainly, and I read about them as it was going on in the '60s. But it never particularly obsessed me. I was more interested in Louis Aragon, the Surrealist dérive and all of that. I liked the notion of it, but it wasn't exactly what I was doing. I liked their notion of finding strange parks at the edge of the city, of creating a walk that would allow you to enter into a fiction, which again sounds like Arthur Machen to me. Is he a psychogeographer?
By the time I was using the term it was more like a psychotic geographer! It was much less philosophically subtle than some of the previous attempts, more of a raging bull journey against the energies of the city.
How influenced were you by the Earth Mysteries school, popularised particularly by John Michell in the '60s?
Ley lines and all of that was much more part of the project for me all the time. My book Ludd Heat was totally ley line orientated. Although I was reading John Michell, it was more to do with EO (Elizabeth) Gordon's Prehistoric London. I found that book around that time and saw that, although it was written by a nutty Christian, it gave you a series of metaphors you could use about the linking of sites in the London landscape. Once you saw it in that way, you could see how all the Hawksmoor churches linked up to give you all those paths and energies. From that everything else derived.
John Michell's ideas are theoretically based in sacred geometry and Platonism, whereas the other side of it is more do to with quite random and extraordinary things like walking shapes or words or symbols into the map. Bill Drummond walked his own name across London and found himself finishing up outside a gallery where there was this image that he goes in and buys, of somewhere in Iceland. But these impulses are nothing to do with eternal verities or sacred notions of place and space.
Stewart Home says that the LPA deliberately mystified and irrationalised their psychogeograhical ideas in order to prevent them from being academicised in the future. But they inevitably will be because Stewart himself is a sort of rogue academic, so it's self-contradictory in some ways. By doing it, it becomes part of this machinery in talks and interviews. The franchise rolls on for future generations.
The density of information to be gathered from these lines in a city must be far greater than in the countryside.
In the city you are nominating song lines as a way of simplifying the story. If you only keep to one path, you've got a certain amount of material, but if you just go anywhere, you're completely swamped, lost. It's a good way of imposing a structure on the chaos. I do feel that as you walk, certain ways do link and put you into certain narratives. Funnily enough, the site where Llandor's Tower starts is where Alfred Watkins had his original vision, though I wasn't aware of this at the time. I'd picked it for other reasons to do with Kilvert and a particular quoit up there. It was only going back to Watkins that I realised where it was.
How do you think ideas of sacred space apply to cities today?
Well it's certainly applied to any city I've known - it has to. Over periods of time, by repetition or by design. Things that work survive, and things that don't won't.
You must have seen a lot of change having lived in this same spot for so long, almost 30 years.
There are definite advantages to staying in the same spot for long periods of time. Partly you accrue information in a very slow, natural way, and partly you can see how the city breathes and changes. There's no way of being disturbed just by novelty. There's a Steiner notion where kids are read the same stories every day, and I know people who take exactly the same walk every day of their lives. That does work, there's a real flash that comes off that. I think that's what I've done by accident here.
However, I've been less comfortable of late here than ever before. Things are boiling up quite fiercely from this random patchwork of gentrification. As one part gets nicer, so the surrounding bits will become more ferocious. Now those contradictions are starting to bite in a serious way. The latest fright sheet that came through from the council says that car crime involves cars being loaded onto lorries and taken away. There were people being arrested on our square doing crack deals, there've been stabbings - if you'd read all this a few years back you'd think they were describing New York. Superficially it's quite calm, but there have been maybe ten or twelve killings here just lately, and they hardly register.
There's ordinary, everyday things too, like the post hardly operates any more, it's completely random whether you get it or not - everything is quietly breaking down. Movement around the city through public transport is impossible. That's one of the reasons I began walking everywhere, because it was quicker!
Is this because, with the increasing gentrification of the area inherent systems have been disturbed?
The systems seem to have survived in their own way for a long time. It all went very slowly; as one lot of people moved out, others would move in and it worked. But now it's speeding up and the system can't cope with the level of despair and anguish of people who are placed here and don't know where they are. The battles between the various groups are becoming fiercer also. I think there's going to be an eruption - we're due one, any day now.
There aren't many people still here from when we moved in. This strip was originally all indigenous, white cockney East End families, who'd been here a long time. This house had grand parents living upstairs, other family members downstairs, all tiny rooms. There was a tin bath and a lavatory outside, and there was a good bath house down the road which has just closed down. As these people died off, mainly middle class newcomers moved in. they'd then move out, often when they had children, like Tony Blair, who lived across the road here then moved to Islington because he didn't want to put his kids into Hackney schools. So there's this constant migration. There's only one family here from when we first moved in. There was a gradual shift to places like Cheshunt, Cab driver territory, people who wanted to escape from black faces.
Wasn't there quite a big migration in the '70s out to Hay on Wye?
That was part of the original impulse of Llandor's Tower. When I first lived here there was a commune of fairly impoverished bohemian hippies living right here because the houses were so cheap. Several of them would live in each house. But they all left in the '70s to go to various places in the country. I couldn't see how it would be possible to live out there - maybe for a week or two. Some of them went and stayed and it proved to be incredibly difficult. You can't live there. It's not viable.
Most of the people I've known and worked with around here have gone, for various reasons. But I think I'll stick here to the death, but who knows. Suddenly it seems that these house are worth huge amounts of money - theoretically, if I couldn't get published I could sell up and get a cottage somewhere. In Wales!
BOOKS & WRITING
I read a piece of writing about you recently that described your work as "unpublishable". How does it feel to be something of a literary celebrity now?
It feels odd! There really wasn't any expectation of this happening at all. I was quite happy initially doing odd jobs and writing when I wanted to, and being a book dealer. That's something I think of as a form of writing, because most of the people I knew were either frustrated writers, current writers, ex-writers. So the books that you were buying represented your own taste, like a curatorship. It's the best possible training and I would still be doing it, but I never liked the move from the street market to the book fair. At that point it became boring and narrowed down to the same half a dozen authors being punted about all the time.
Seizing the opportunity of somebody actually paying for you to be published was, and is, amazing. I've tried to revise things a little to try to keep that going but I don't know how long it will last, particularly in the current climate. There's going to be very little room for novels like this one. You just don't see them. I know people who are just starting out writing similar things, and they don't even get their books read. It's like the old Hollywood, they just want versions of things that are already successful. Or things that are so banal and threadbare that you can get the whole thing in one hit, like instant coffee.
It's like what you say about Jeffrey Archer's books. You don't need to read them, you can glean everything you want just by holding them. Literary osmosis.
I think these books are self-manufacturing after a while, just cloning away quietly. It amazes me that people actually read them - I can't see why. The language is so unwieldy, and the feeling of being manipulated is overwhelming. I don't understand how these things can work as bestsellers. There are other things that may not be great, but you can see how the page-turning mechanism works, the compulsion to keep going is there. It's a real mystery, worthy of Fortean Times! I think Archer's done some Satanic deal somewhere. I think he's a ghost on the fringe of the Llandor book, though he doesn't figure loudly in it, because of Weston Super Mare.
You've got Driffield in your current book, but I've heard lots of people say that he's dead. (Driffield was an eccentric figure around the London book scene, a book runner, who you used to see down the Charing Cross Rd, talking very loudly to people in the shops.)
No, I don't think he's dead. If I knew he was dead I wouldn't include him in there. He did, seriously, disappear about three or four years ago. But recently I've been getting all sorts of phone calls about him. Just recently Lynn Barber - who's an old flame of his, and there's quite a lot of weird stuff there - she rang up desperate to find him, and I've no idea where he is. I keep getting a lot of reports, the latest one was an old man who'd bought some stuff off him some time ago heard that Driffield was in an asylum. He'd finally lost it and was either locked up or hiding away. He disappeared after writing this novel, which I read and passed on to my agent, and it was on the point of being published when he rang them up and insisted that they insert all these huge, mad letters, obviously draughts of real letters. They refused and he withdrew it and hasn't been seen since.
His great obsession was suicide. He collected books on suicide and he had coffins and skulls and all sorts of stuff. Years back - I've known him since about 1976 - he said he was going to kill himself on 9.9.99, and started selling tickets. It was going to be a ceremony. He'd burn on a pyre of books and he sold quite a few tickets. Now some people are assuming that he really did do it somewhere and nobody's seen him for a long time. Sometimes he would disappear for two or three months at a time, and be spotted in Exeter or Aberdeen. But now he's only been seen once, much gaunter and long-haired. He used to be quite chunky and bald. It's a genuine mystery.
Back in the early '70s he opened up a free bookshop in Notting Hill and it failed. It was full of books and you could take whatever you wanted as he was libertarian, well, a right wing libertarian. I think he was such a frightening presence that no one would come into his shop.
Is the book dealing world a closed one?
It's like a kind of masonic society. It's not closed in that anyone can set up a stall and be involved, and they'll all fall on you. But this network of strange contacts and secrets and stuff is true, and it would take years to become par of that. The people who really run things are the ones who run the auctions - that's the proper power base, an impenetrable secret world. Unless you've got the contacts and the time and money, you won't get into it.
I was dealing books from about 1976 to 1986, and for a while it was potentially quite dangerous - books and drugs were counter-balanced. Some dealers were literally getting enough profit in a week to set up the next week's coke deals. There was a particular house in Cannon St that's right by the crossroads where the head of the Ratcliffe Highway murderer is buried, and in this house was a pile of really abstruse books, lots of first editions, and also all this drug stuff. There'd be people arriving in the middle of the night and you wouldn't know if it wad drugs or books they were after - both were done with enormous secrecy. The place was watched room across the road by a disgruntled book dealer who was acting ads a police informer.
It was quite dangerous back then. One man, Chris Rowden, who ran Bell, Book and Rowden ended up shooting himself with a shotgun. He was very much part of this nexus, involved in some very dodgy business. I don't think things are as bad as that anymore.
How do you feel about the reappropriation of your ideas by the likes of Alan Moore and Peter Ackroyd? In parts From Hell seemed to me like an elucidation of some of your own ideas.
Certainly the beginning of Alan Moore's From Hell is very close is spirit to White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings. There's a point in there that Gull makes these journeys across London and he even comes down Albion Drive! He was working from Ludd Heat, which mentions Ludd's Shed or something, which was just a joke, it's my house! Alan was going round London Fields intently trying to work out the psychic significance of this and drawing a blank - there was nothing there!
Some people have found interesting themes in things that I myself borrowed in my time. If people find them workable, there are parts of things to do with London and the city that just cohere and can be passed on from obscure corner to obscure corner until someone like Peter Ackroyd manages to smooth it all out and present it in such a way that it becomes a massive best seller. It's quite bizarre really. It's funny, I met a woman last night who had once optioned a script of Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. Since then it's been through various re-writes but nobody can do anything with it because there's no structure, it's like a conjuring trick.
What are your memories of working with Michael Reeves (director of The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General - US title The Conqueror Worm) and that period in general?
Essentially he was a friend of a friend, and had this small mews house in Knightsbridge, behind Harrods. This became something of a base for his friends, including Tom Baker - not the Dr Who, but the guy who wrote scripts with him. It was very interesting to meet Reeves, because he was so tunnel-visioned into becoming a director in the Don Siegel-type tradition. In fact Siegel was his god, he had no interest in the art cinema that the rest of us were chasing around, and he didn't buy into the Cahiers du Cinema thing about Hitchcock and Howard Hawks either. He had his own taste and a very strong sense of the mechanics of how it should all be put together. There were a lot of people around like him, rich kids who wanted the glamour and ended up being technicians, and there were a lot of people who wanted to make Godard films, and weren't going to.
But he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and did it. But then, once he'd had some success, I think the situation became rapidly overwhelming - some of the people he was dealing with were mafia monsters, working in the schlock industry. I don't know that he committed suicide, but by that stage in his life he was getting pretty careless. He was very young. You wonder, if he'd stayed alive and kept at it, would he have gone on to do Michael Powell-type stuff, or would he have just become a good, hard-working Hollywood professional, a Michael Winner with a brain.
At the time I was much more interested in The Sorcerers than in Witchfinder General. Witchfinder is really a Western, lots of chasing across the countryside stuff. It isn't as interesting thematically as The Sorcerers with its very weird set up and the dignity of Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey is extraordinary for such a little film. A lot of the night-club stuff is very clunky, but it's a great London film, a lost London film.
I did get letters from Burke who wrote the original book, Terror for Kicks. He was rather pissed off about what I'd written in Lights Out, he didn't want all the credit to go to Mike Reeves. Unfortunately I haven't read the original book, so I don't know. But he's still out there somewhere.
Have you found yourself ever getting in trouble with anyone you've written about?
Well, perhaps minor disagreements, but nothing serious. No lawsuits as yet! I don't know what this one will produce. Granta are slightly nervous.
I was surprised to hear about the connections between Howard Marks and Peter Whitehead.
Yes, that's very interesting. Whitehead was the chief prosecution witness at Marks' trial for cannabis smuggling. But Marks didn't seem to mind. He's either completely doped out, or he just didn't care.
A lot of people who new Whitehead from the late '60s, early '70s, like Alexis Lykiard, were adamant that he was the most pungent thing ever to walk the Earth. There's tonnes of that sort of thing that didn't get into our film The Falconer. But Howard Marks basically said: that's how it goes, it could have been me, I'll let it go. They're not exactly going to be bosom buddies again, but when they met, Howard didn't seem to bear any grudge whatsoever. Whereas Whitehead spent three days in the witness box being quite savagely grilled by this man, who brought up all the stuff about the falcons and various dubious notions. But he got away with it. Otherwise he'd have gone down for along time too, because acres of incriminating stuff was found in his cottage, which is actually owned by Howard Marks.
This is genuine conspiracy material. There's a book called The Pilgrim and the Cowboy which deals with Whitehead's activities smuggling falcon's eggs in America and it turned out to be a CIA sting operation involving eight people. Seven of them go to jail, except Whitehead. Chris Petit's been chasing this book on the web for ages, but every time he's about to buy it from some shop in Arizona, it's gone. It's impossible! It's as if either Whitehead or the CIA are trying to prevent it going into the public domain. I've read Peter's own copy, and it's an amazing story. He was conning the egg smugglers and was given huge sums of money to negotiate with, pretending he was in Saudi Arabia, when he was actually in England. Then one of these guys finds out, comes over and puts a gun to his head, at which point Peter goes round the back and produces £200,000. I don't know how he can have walked through all this stuff and survived untouched, but he did.
Whitehead came from a fairly working class family in Cumbria. Then his parents separated and he moved to London and got put into a public school on a scholarship. He felt that he had to put on this mask to survive in that world, and became this kind of double man. He got into Cambridge as a scientist, then got into art and film - he was a con man with an extraordinary front, and that was the perfect time to be doing it. He convinced lots of academics to put up the money for Wholly Communion and they never got any of it back and so on and so on. It's a bizarre career.
I first met him in the '60s when I was doing a film about Allen Ginsberg, and he'd done Wholly Communion. We had some friends in common and I went round to his place in Soho, which was full of these birds all over the place. But I borrowed one of his associates to do sound on my film. I didn't see him again until the '80s, when he knew Mike Goldmark, who published my first book. Then I went round to his cottage, which was extraordinary. He had two wives, one at each end of the house, and hinted at all these strange magical things that he was capable of doing. He'd always leave you with a teaser at the end to bring you back one more time. Then he infiltrated this film, took it over really.
What about Arthur Gurdham, the GP, who was into immortality and reincarnation? What's your connection with him?
Well I used to paint white lines on Hackney Marshes, and one day I came back to the house to find this blue Rolls Royce Corniche parked outside. I came in and there was this strange man in my room, reading my books. He was a rag trade millionaire called Geoff Quintner who ran the Village Gate shops. He'd decided for some strange reason that he was going to go into books, particularly the Powys brothers, and had bought my Kodak Mantra Diaries and said that this was the kind of thing that he wanted to do and he wanted to put me on the payroll. So for £50 a week I'd go down to his shop in King's Cross and start looking for Powys connections for him, or go take photographs of Stonehenge.
Quintner was obsessed with Gurdham, so one of the figures in the poem is this man. He used to think of himself as a kind of Jewish Zen master, firing off questions at people. He got himself a big bookshop in Regent St, and a lot of these people he'd signed up, water diviners, ley hunters etc, actually ended up having to work in his bookshop, which ultimately went spectacularly bust. It was a beautiful building, wonderfully designed, but nobody wanted to buy John Cooper Powys in bulk. So the books ended up in piles on Farringdon rd, and he's apparently living alone in a small bedsit in Cheltenham. Perhaps he's some kind of Zen monk
One of the people that worked in his shop turned out to be a very successful celebrity photographer who'd just been out in South Africa shooting Mandela, and he decided he was going to find Quintner, and he did. Took him down to the shops and showed him a load of my books. Quintner then said, why don't you go round and film all the people that used to work in my shop, so this photographer turned up here, obviously hadn't read anything I'd done, and interviewed me for Quintner.
Quintner was really into Colin Wilson and had brought him up to London to launch a magazine called Planete, originally from Amsterdam I think (edited by Louis Pauwels & Jacques Bergier, authors of Morning of the Magicians). He was going to buy it, then changed his mind at the last minute. That this man was also involved in the rag trade! He was a classic piece of Chelsea late '60s life! He grew up in Hackney, educated himself at Mare St library and was selling shirts on Kingsland Wastes Market. He'd take shirts round American airbases, making lots of money, then he opened a shop making imitation Saville Row style suits. It all went fantastically well until he decided to do books.
We used to drive round town in his Corniche, which was fantastic given the poverty we were living in, cruising around these ley line routes with this lunatic. He was into Machen too, republished, The Art of Wandering with a silvery spine.
How do you think the underground has changed since the '60s?
Well I'm not so much a part of it now, but my feeling is that it's very different to how it was then. There's not the same sort of esoteric bumbling after subjects. You're not going to get rag trade millionaires who are interested in ley lines and Arthur Guirdham and will throw it all away on the Powys brothers. Those things were happening all the time, though I never went out looking for it. It would just arrive on your door step.
People like Bruce Lacey, a performance artist who made mechanical toys that were used in Spike Milliganish films, a really nutty character. He just turned up on my doorstep one day with a copy of Ludd Heat. He was actually trying to navigate London using these oddly drawn maps. This certainly used to happen in a way that it just doesn't any more.
The nice thing living here was that you were really hidden away. There were some people called the Exploding Galaxy on Balls Pond Rd, and they looked extreme, wafted about in funny clothes. So they kept getting busted for drugs and that sort of thing. But if you just looked a bit ordinary, maybe had longer hair than usual, you could live here unnoticed, just part of the fabric. But I don't think there's an equivalent now. Jobs were so easy to come by then. You could go out when you needed one and come back the next day with something for a few months, then stop and pick up another one when you needed.
Which writers were you really interested in as a youth?
There's nobody who dominates my consciousness particularly, I was originally fascinated by the Beats, Celine, Burroughs, Joyce, the Irish writers, Beckett. Also John Michell, Earth Mysteries stuff, Castaneda and all that, then as time goes on, discovering more obscure, lost, London writers.
Mike Moorcock, who's a friend. I've watched what he's done over the years, and think the trajectory of what he's done, from Tarzan and Jerry Cornelius to very large books. But none of the punted contemporary British novelists grab me in any particular way.
I think the publishing situation is going to get worse. The concentration is to put out fewer, bigger books. So even as bookshops become grotesquely large, the actual options are minimal unless you're fanatically searching out other things. Granta, who publish me, are now publishing much less, a very small number of titles, but they're doing that quite efficiently.
We've still got plenty of self-published stuff, of course, it's much easier with desktop publishing. I get lots of Stewart Home-style pamphlets sent to me. I'm not online, but there must be all sorts of strange things crashing through that system. I can imagine a day when the large publishers are completely bypassed because, really, what do they do for you now except distribute? They don't really edit at all, they just take your disk, copy edit, and print it out. There's no serious editing as there might once have been. The printers just run it off and it goes to the publishers' distribution network and that's it.
Big bookshops are becoming increasingly irrelevant. I think there's some strange system where publishers have to rent shelf space, so they just take a small number of books and promote them really heavily.
Soon you won't have a bookshelf as such, more like a department store with concessions stands. Already these catalogues are bogus, when they say: "so and so recommends" these books as if they'd made a decision, but it's just advertising paid for by the publishers.
It's such a loss that somewhere like Compendium in Camden has gone. Not just the shop, but the people there, who knew all about what was coming out. I used to rely on that shop to sell my own books when nobody else would, and also keep me up to date with what was going on.
Didn't you publish William Burroughs once?
Yes, it was only a small piece, in a magazine, while I was at university in Dublin in 1962. We wrote to loads of people asking for material, and he was the only pone to send us anything. I don't even thing it's been republished. I got into a correspondence with him after that, and was going to do a film with him, but then he got deeply into Scientology and we lost him.
What's happening with your own film making? Any ambitions to do mainstream cinema?
Now with the new digital technology, it's getting to a stage like it was in the '60s. In some ways it's even better. But I've got no ambitions to do any mainstream film, it'd be too grisly. In a fantasy world, yes, but I know that it's largely impossible. People have nibbled around a couple of my books, but you'd have to strip them completely. I'd like to do it, but nobody's given me the money so far. It'd be a totally different thing, but some of the themes, shapes and characters could easily be extracted from any of my books.
Chris Griffiths is trying to put something together to do White Chapell as a film, but it wouldn't be the book. I wouldn't even conceive of that, it wouldn't even have Jack the Ripper in it. But all the book dealing, which we were talking about, could be superimposed over a different Victorian story. If we can get some money together, I would do it.
Griffiths also trying to get something together with Chris Petit on James Salis' book Death Will Have Your Eyes, a road book, set in America with this guy driving around and being followed. Paranoia in the American landscape. There might be some kind of strange feature film, but it would take a strange production to get it on the road.
Finally, what do you think the next steps for psychogeography are?
I think the next step is to bury it completely! Let it go and let it re-emerge. I think it needs 15 years to gain some new energy, as I think this energy is rapidly running out.