Lights Out for the Territory is Iain Sinclair’s re-mapping,
through nine essays, of 1990s London, a non-fiction extension
of his researches for the novels Radon Daughters
and Downriver. Its genesis is a sequence of walks,
bisecting the capital’s boroughs and re-working conventional delineations
of the city as a series of ‘zones’: citadels of power and money
in some cases, blasted enclosures for the marginal and disenfranchised
in others. The essays take the form of extended monologues, a
palimpsest of local history, biography, contemporary politics
and social policy, and autobiography. This potentially random
narrative is held together through the specific and detailed geography
of the walks, and a web of texts (London-based novels, poems and
films) that inform Sinclair’s personal topography of the city.
This is not a vision that permits any postmodernist celebration
of commercial popular culture, and there is a savage humour in
his treatment of gentrified redevelopment. The opening chapters
are particularly caustic: here’s his vision of the pit-bulls and
satellite dishes of East London:
The dog and the dish, they hang out together chummy as a pub sign.
Dog protects dish, and also basks in its addictive glow – a sort
of lowrent tanning bed… Satellite TV is a longdistance heart
attack, incremental cancers: the narcoleptic trauma in which the
dreams of the dog and the man (lager, sport, steroids, blood and
sawdust) meet and mingle.
This hatred for aspects of contemporary culture is set against
an absolute lack of nostalgia: he catalogues the worst symptoms
of decay and soulless redevelopment (the Isle of Dogs being a
particular example) without recourse to cosy visions of lost communities.
What he does conjure from the past are certain key figures in
the "psycho-geography" of London: the mysterious 16th
century alchemist and geographer Dr Dee, Elias Ashmole whose bizarre
collection of curiosities formed the basis of the Ashmolean in
Oxford, Luke Howard the early 19th century classifier of clouds,
and Nicholas Hawksmoor whose occultist remapping of London forms
another layer of Sinclair’s geography. He sees those ley lines
running across the old city, from church to church, lines of force
which contemporary London makes imperceptible. The graveyards
of these churches, some transformed into parks and gardens, are
a constant theme, as is the image of London’s dead shifting and
mingling beneath the surface of the modern city.
…gravestones are cleared to decorate the borders of market gardens.
Angels and emblems have been set over the empty earth, bodies
‘snatched’ for the hospitals and lecture theatres. Springs bubble
to the surface through pits of putrefaction. At St George-in-the-East
the vicar hung a placard over the water pump: DEAD MEN’S BROTH.
The city is a contaminated environment, rotting below ground while
developers clean the surface for big business or manufactured
communities of locals and their dogs (the "shit-machines").
Breaching the "Ring of Plastic" and entering the City
of London introduces a surreal world of buried history (the Temple
of Mithras), furtive outdoor smokers, and surveillance technology.
He imagines these cameras, operating automatically, as ushering
in "post-human cinema", requiring no subject and no
…when the machines are left to hose imagery on to banked screens
in an empty room… a melancholy futurist poetic begins to operate:
visionary street scenes unrivalled since the birth of cinema…
the City is at last able to compose its own poetry, with no human
The first half of the book takes us into the heart of darkness:
on the one side are lives of frustration and violence, on the
other the hidden mechanisms of social manipulation and control.
In Sinclair’s model, the only figures capable of charting this
decaying and frequently hostile environment are London’s artists,
its writers, poets, sculptors and film-makers, and as the narrative
of the book develops the tone softens into a more generous appreciation
of the achievements of his fellow writers and artists. Sinclair
takes us into the world of these psycho-geographers: unpublished
poets, out of print novelists and artists outside the pale of
the New British Art scene; and army of the "re-forgotten"
as he describes them.
A cast of frequently bizarre characters is introduced, including
Gavin Jones seen experimenting in his subterranean museum-studio,
poets Brian Catling and Aidan Dun, the eccentric publisher Mike
Goldmark and novelist Robin Cook alias Derek Raymond (the book
includes a very useful bibliography of London writings). In the
most autobiographical essay, Cinema Purgatorio, he
gives an amusing and deeply depressing account of his own attempts
to break into the movies: a catalogue of doomed projects. This
rather pathetic narrative leads into the equally downbeat story
of Michael Reeves (dead at twenty-five after making Witchfinder
General) and Christopher Petit (inactive after Radio
On and Chinese Boxes), and the more upbeat
and continuing career of Patrick Keiller (London
and Robinson in Space). What many of these artists
share, and what Sinclair seeks to celebrate, is the quality of
working against the contemporary grain, eking out often invisible
working lives in the face of general apathy. Until fairly recently,
of course, Sinclair could be classed as a card-carrying member
of this fraternity. Whether Lights Out for the Territory
will elevate him to a more general visibility remains to be seen.
It is an intense and multi-layered contribution to the psycho-geography
of the capital and, in parts, a very moving tribute to a group
of artists whose commitment to their chosen path puts to shame
the perpetual tendency to champion passing fashions.
Reviewed by Dan Smith