Talking reservoirs, rivers, redevelopment and the importance of a good breakfast with the writer Iain Sinclair.
Iain Sinclair is a London writer, but he is also a London walker. In fact, both habits are completely entwined and he can’t do one without the other.
“For me the practise of walking and writing are not separated in any way. I discovered, as soon as I started to write full time, that I need to step away from my study in the house and move out into the landscape. It’s a way of deprogramming myself, and of allowing the voices of place to come to me, so that my writing becomes a collaboration with the topography.”
I invite Iain to meet me at the East Reservoir Community Garden in Stoke Newington as I know he’s a devoted Hackney-ite and I want to show him London Wildlife Trust’s newest site. He’s just published a book about the borough and the excursion brings back memories of walking Hackney’s boundaries and specifically walking past the reservoir along the New River. He recalls seeing the “beautiful spread of water with the reed beds and the sun setting behind it” and seems to delighted to return to the spot, confessing that “as I’ve got more and more ancient, I’ve realised that, having been in Hackney for so long, the very surroundings are kind of autobiography now”.
Every morning Iain and his wife strike out early, walking from their east London home across London Fields, through Victoria Park, before looping back along the Regent’s Canal. “The circuit only takes about three quarters of an hour, but by doing this all the time in the same landscape, you notice minute changes, you see particular wildlife and you see particular eccentrics, and the whole thing becomes a story and you belong to it”.
Iain worries about the massive redevelopment projects currently underway in his borough. “It’s like bits of your own memory are being burnt out, things that have become part of my story by passing by them are no longer there. It’s unnerving.” He worries that important areas are being lost, and is most alarmed about being prevented from walking.
“A lot of development is being done in a rush, brutally and top down, without genuine consultation. The first casualty is the freedom to walk. Endless streets just disappear, cones and barriers are put up, once public territory becomes privatised. My favourite walk used to be to wander up the lower Lee Valley, through bits of land that were industrially derelict, through old orchards and wilderness patches, onto the reservoirs. The mixture of life you would get there was astonishing. If you’re living somewhere as intensely urban as Hackney I think you desperately need these green lungs and open spaces and changes of light.”
Iain Sinclair is part of a long tradition of London writers who walk. He points to Dickens , who was famous for walking 15 miles a day, and to De Quincey, whose essays have a rambling and digressive style. It is a way of moving that allows the writer to access an almost dreamlike state. “The experience of walking is transcendent, magic, we can’t afford to lose that.”
Iain’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, betray a fascination with London’s riverside churches and churchyards. His interest in these spaces stems from working as a gardener for Tower Hamlets council in the 1970s. “Being a labourer in these spaces was a sort of privileged thing. It was interesting to see what wildlife felt happy living among the tombs, and to see the human wildlife too. Eccentrics would all feel very comfortable in these spaces because they were quite wild.
“I’d always take my lunch and my bicycle into the wilderness of Tower Hamlets cemetery, and have a picnic and a read and a wander. The density of birdlife in the thicket of these woods, and the plants that were growing up through the rich soil, made it, I thought, a prime ecological site.”
The River Thames is another strong presence in Iain’s work and he says that London without the river would hold no interest for him. “I don’t think there’s anything better you can do than big riverine walks”. For him, there is nothing finer than “traversing through streets and suddenly coming on this huge, glittering thing where the light changes so vividly and dramatically. But it’s also a dangerous thing, the currents are so complex.
“I would be a writer somewhere else, but I’d probably be a completely unsuccessful one. London suits the kind of writing I like to do, which involves walking, moving, wandering, random collisions, meeting strange people, behaviours duplicating itself – all of those things belong to London.”
The final thing to discuss with Iain are the practicalities of being such a prolific walker. He assures me that epic city walks are possible if one is wearing a decent pair of socks. He also knows the value of a good cooked breakfast.
“For a whole day’s walking, I like to start at about 6am, and then by 9am you’re really quite hungry. Recently doing a Thames walk from the Isle of Grain, I was in a wilderness-y bit of the Thames estuary and I thought we weren’t going to get anything to eat. We were at Ebb’s Fleet, where the new channel tunnel interchange is being built – a landscape that’s being completely revised. In the middle of all this there was a coffee caravan and it gave the best breakfast I’ve had in ages. Sitting in the open air, within a hundred yards of the river, it just seemed like a magical breakfast. After that, you’re fuelled up for the next ten miles of walking.”
Iain Sinclair is a writer, poet and film-maker and widely regarded as one of London’s greatest chroniclers. His many books include Downriver, Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital. His latest book is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, a personal record of the area of London where he has lived for forty years.
This interview appears in the spring issue of Wild London magazine