Author and psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair spoke about Notting Hill, Robert Louis Stevenson and finding transcendence in London at our Idler Dinner in October. Here is an edited version of his talk
I’ll give you a sense of how West London works for me. Maida Vale is seriously exotic. Just stepping out of the train was like finding yourself in Madrid. I remember the last time I used to come to Notting Hill regularly. I had a job as a painter and a decorator. I was certainly no idler – I was working three jobs just to survive.
I went to 16 Chepstow Place on a job. I had some literary interest so I remembered that the address belonged to a character called Bartholomew Malthus from The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson. While I was there, scratching at the paint, I began to hear this strange sound. It sounded like something from Edgar Allen Poe. I looked out of the window. Snow was quietly falling – this was a winter gig – and outside in the yard, there was a table tennis table. These two characters, husband and wife, came out fully clothed – long overcoats, woolly hats, big scarfs – and played a game of table tennis. At 1 o’clock every day, they played: half an hour, stop, gone. It was incredible. I then discovered that it was Donald McWhinnie, who produced all of Harold Pinter’s plays on the radio, and his wife.
Yet the house also had a darker aspect. As I looked further into this address, 16 Chepstow Place, I found it was the last address of a writer called Julian Maclaren-Ross, who you may know through the novels of Anthony Powell. He was a slightly sinister, dandified character who survived the war years as a short story writer and novelist. He then fell on very hard times. He pitched a film treatment to screenwriter Alexander Baron for which he got the princely sum of £25 and the script he got was The Suicide Club.
One day, when I was walking to the tube station on my way back to Hackney, I saw in the newspaper headline that there had been a grisly murder in the very next street. It was biographer James Pope-Hennessy who had been battered to death by his gay boyfriend. A manuscript was on the table, covered in blood, which they managed to disinter and posthumously publish – it was a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson.
It was all closing in ominously on this address. This is my weird sense of West London.
The stories are there to be found and, in a sense, that is what my book, The Last London, is about. It’s about wandering. It’s not a kind of idle wandering; I gave up on the term flâneur a while back. I went for fugan instead, like the mad walkers of the 19th century who took off on enormous journeys across France. There was a plumber from Bordeaux who walked out the door one day and finished up in Moscow. Then some dreadful writers took up with it and within a few months, the middle classes were all on the road pretending to be fugues. I feel a bit like that now with this whole walking fetish. Now everywhere you go, you find people doing strange conceptual walks, taking photographs of road signs and trying to get arrested in the car park of IKEA. I copyrighted that a long time ago.
In The Last London, I come through West London on a night walk. For my previous book, I walked the London Overground line, which at that point was a big circle, in a single day with Andrew Kötting, a filmmaker and an eccentric performance artist. We went round the Overground in a day, reflecting on characters like JG Ballard and Angela Carter, who I’d met and known at various times. But at the end of it, when Andrew set off back home to the coast, he was in a terrible accident on the Old Kent Road. He was on a motorbike and was hit side on, nearly died. He was rescued by a Polish policewoman and taken to a hospital on Denmark Hill where he was given lots of drugs. He sunk into this strange limbo state where the whole walk morphed into some strange kind of nightmarish dream. When he recovered and wanted to exorcise this experience, he said we should do it again: walk around the same track in the reverse direction by night. And we did.
It was magic. The night in London is velvety and strange. You realise there is actually a communal dream that links Hackney with Maida Vale despite everything. I realised that when I was leaving Highbury and Islington late in the evening. I could hear the sounds from Arsenal’s stadium of a European cup game that they were losing. I could hear the groans of the crowd at the same time as I could see through the windows of the houses all of the TV screens which this game was on. That ripple, like the TV screens, goes right across London.
You can feel it in Willesden, you can feel it everywhere. As we walked that night, we felt everyone was falling asleep in a chain. London was a communal dream and it remained this way until we got all the way back to Denmark Hill again. We went into the hospital, where Andrew had recovered from his accident, filthy and with huge rucksacks. Nobody saw us. We walked through the wards like ghosts. When we emerged, the sun was coming out over the east, over Tower Bridge, and a vision of London was there.
What I wanted to get out of this book was that sense of London being dangerous, difficult, hard to negotiate, but suddenly transcendent. Through some journey or thing that you do, the city becomes magical and you can touch that. At the same time, as we know, not so far from here, there are the horrors like Grenfell Tower, just inches away from the Westway which was such an inspiration to JG Ballard.
London is multiple, London is plural, and my dealings with it have reached this final point.
This is an edited version of Iain’s talk at the Idler Dinner in October. Join us for the last Idler Dinner of the year on Wednesday 15th November with Chris Donald and John Brown of Viz and TV zoologist Lucy Cooke. Buy tickets here. Iain latest book The Last London (One World) is out now. You can buy a copy here.