The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Lights Out for the Territory
Iain Sinclair

Lights Out for the Territory
Iain Sinclair
London 1996

Merchandise Links

UK Edition:

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 viewer:

…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 intervention.

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


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review